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Sharpening Both Sides Of the Cutting Edge

Robyn Allen

I can see the headlines now:

Admissions Office Strikes Gold with New Slogan: “MIT -- Where the Women Are Geniuses, The Men Are Good-Looking, And All Of The Students Are Above Average.”

Marilee Jones might as well reprint all the brochures, since this is a better portrayal of reality than any Latin gibberish, right? Walking down a hallway in an engineering department last week, I noticed posters of pioneers in the field, all famous alums who had gone on to make their mark on the world. Prospective students probably pace this corridor, learning about what it means to apply “mind and hand” to the pursuit of excellence, looking at their own reflection on the glass next to the creative thinkers. A little ways past the pioneer poster there are pictures of undergraduates in laboratories, building exquisite contraptions underneath a heading that proclaims: “students.” The title of the next poster is “women.”

Apparently, the Institute has come a long way since women students were called “coeds.” On the Undergraduate Admissions Web site, I clicked on a button labeled “who’s at MIT” and learned that 43 percent of the Class of 2008 is female. Unfortunately, under the heading “who used to be a student at MIT,” the site did not list any gender ratio statistics (maybe the ballots are still being counted).

Regardless of whether or not this omission was intentional, I am repeatedly intrigued by the people of the Institute. Two world class jugglers performed at MIT this past Saturday night, eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd in 54-100 (many of whom were already standing due to lack of seats). One of MIT’s own a cappella groups performed midway through, singing a lively rendition of the widely-known “Engineer’s Drinking Song.” Where else can one enjoy jokes about Harvard while watching two teenaged world record-holders mock gravity? By all accounts, it was a night to remember.

But my memory of the event has a slightly different tone than this article might lead you to believe. Watching from the audience, it didn’t matter to me that nine out of 10 performers were male. I was sitting in an MIT lecture hall, and, to be blunt, it isn’t usually a woman who lectures at the blackboard, so there was little deviation from the status quo. Among my peers, the numbers are different, though, as the admissions Web site attests. So I noticed on Saturday that even the added verse the a cappella group wrote explicitly for the performance appealed to the same image of “the MIT engineer.” And I noticed the embarrassed look on the guest performer’s face when she was tastelessly introduced with a joke that entertained less than half of the people in the room.

Is this front-page news? Does it warrant a riot in Lobby 10? I don’t know that we should be so hasty. But I do know that this is everyone’s concern. Generalizations and expired stereotypes haunt MIT on a daily basis. The problem is pervasive and subtle, and I applaud the efforts to date on this issue, but if you look closely there is more work to be done. You can see it in the makeup of the faculty, in the people who are consistently confident enough to ask questions or point out mistakes in a printed handout, in the gender breakdown of those who become TAs for certain classes, and even in passing speech. We have swept this under the rug because it is of no apparent threat to anyone’s person or wallet, yet gender equity at MIT is critical. Gender frequently enters into choice-of-major discussions since the metric of how “hard-core” a course of study is often carries over to comments about the people who choose it. We make these sorts of comments offhandedly, never thinking they might actually influence someone to stay away from a major of interest. Given the motivation of students here, it’s hard to make a case that they would. Yet in combination with the rest of the stereotypes the attentive observer sees every day, I wonder if even this doesn’t have an effect. Perhaps the only way to find out is to watch more closely -- and hope that soon the engineering department won’t even need to include that third poster.

Robyn Allen is a member of the class of 2007.