Gender Exists, Even Here
On the evening of Jan. 20th, while perusing an online news search site, my eyes shifted to the “Sci/Tech” section and to a surprising headline. Larry Summers, Harvard President and MIT alumnus, had reportedly commented that biological factors may be among the reasons why women don’t often succeed in math and science. I immediately read more than a dozen different articles on the subject and forwarded some of the most stimulating to an e-mail list of MIT women. As news spread around the world, the comments made by President Summers incited a flurry of debate on the cause and content of his statements.
I returned to the MIT campus a week later and tried to bring up the controversy with several friends. Few of them who were not on my e-mail list had even heard of the event in question. MIT was being mentioned in a large fraction of the texts in the media, for a variety of reasons, and the students here didn’t even seem to know any issues had been raised.
This past weekend I was struck, yet again, by the awareness of our students on these issues. The MIT Program in Women’s Studies held a symposium to celebrate its 20th anniversary and hosted a day-long schedule full of amazing speakers and scholars in 10-250. As I sat in the lecture hall early that morning, reminiscing about my days in 3.091, I was struck by the composition of the audience. The hall was packed just like it had been with Professor Sadoway in class. However, I could only spot about 15-20 MIT undergraduates. Hundreds of students, scholars, and interested parties had come in from all over, so of course I was stunned by the lack of attention and activism on the part of our own students.
MIT is known as the great meritocracy; we do not need to take consideration of who you are, just what you achieve. This mentality seems to pervade our attitudes constantly. When people do become aware of the comments recently made on barriers for women in math and science, the response is often “women are half the undergraduate population, they’re fine at MIT,” or “well, women just tend to be interested in management more than computer science; if they wanted to do computer science they could just switch their major.”
Because I have become very interested in what it means to be a woman studying at the Institute, I have spent much of the last year interviewing women and asking them about their experiences here. One thing that has struck me is the awe and optimism that underclass women have tended to express about this place. Many tell stories of high school teachers telling them they can’t do math (yes, this still happens) or family friends telling their parents they shouldn’t send a daughter to a technical institute but instead to a liberal arts school (yes, this still happens, too.) When they get to MIT, they are amazed at the wealth of equality that is given regardless of gender. Your physics professor in 8.01 doesn’t care if you are male or female, only if you can learn and manage the material.
However, the stories of upperclasswomen have tended toward a different direction. As they progress through their educations and start to consider a career for the future, they notice that other factors besides pure merit have affected them and interfere. Many are not able to put a finger on exactly what those factors are, although some do state particulars. They wonder aloud about the stereotypes of majors here, the lack of female role models and mentors in the faculty, and the “masculine” environment. Do these things affect the success of women?
My concern is not just the factors that might influence women’s achievement -- it is the fact that we are not, as a community, talking about them. Too many students either didn’t know about the comments made by President Summers last month or didn’t think much of it when they did know. Too many students weren’t aware of the fantastic work being done in Women’s Studies to address topics such as this. And too many students don’t begin to question their assumptions about the relationship between themselves and their social, cultural, and intellectual environment until they are at the Institute for many years.
Some dialogues have begun. President Hockfield’s joint statement with the presidents of Stanford and Princeton was a marvelous and admirable effort to bring another opinion about women in these fields to the forefront and keep our thoughts looking to the future instead of dwelling on the past. The Association of Women Students is hosting a panel and discussion on Women in Math and Science on Feb. 21 to bring MIT faculty, administrators, and students into a room to hold a discourse about what the barriers might be and how we might address them.
However, this cannot be the end of the discussion. If we are to effect any change, then we must continue to talk about this beyond the next media cycle. Otherwise, we will continue to repeat the patterns of those before us and fall into old assumptions about the cause of gender disparity.
Rose Grabowski is a member of the class of 2005 and President of the Association of Women Students.