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Women in Science
Moderated by  Laura Hoopes
Posted on: March 21, 2011
Posted By: Laura Hoopes

Nancy Hopkins on MIT for women in science today

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Nancy Hopkins, the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a guest forum poster today. A new report was released about how women in science are faring at MIT. Nancy Hopkins, a prime mover in the earlier study that set benchmarks for all women professors in science who wanted fair treatment, all over the country, has shared some comments on the new study today, and will give a talk about it next Monday. The issues have changed, things have greatly improved at MIT, but there are still issues. Here are her thoughts. LH

If you were to go back and look at the 1999 Report on Women in Science from MIT, you would see that MIT really addressed every recommendation the women made:

1. They recruited women to the central and departmental administrations: This has been successful beyond our imaginations to imagine in 1999 (female President, 2 of 5 Deans, 2 Associate Deans, and the Chairs of 2 Science and 1 Engineering department).

2. They made it possible for women to have children before tenure and talk about it without the huge stigma of the past. (No woman had taken family leave in Science and then gotten tenure in 1999.) Rules had to be re-written and the stigma removed. This was done by endless discussion with all department heads, Deans, etc and women faculty during the writing of the rules and by putting a day care center smack in the middle of the campus. There are babies all over the campus!

3. They ensured equity for women by having women faculty in the administration assigned the task of checking salaries and being available to negotiate inequities of resources etc promptly if they cam to their attention. These women had the backing of the President, Provost and now Deans.

4. They set about to increase the number of women faculty while maintaining the incredible standards of MIT. This requires a LOT of work by Deans working with their department heads because women are a smaller fraction of the pool and you have to really SEARCH for them. The women they hired are OFF the charts good. For example, today, 40% of female full professors in Science at MIT are NAS members (vs 31% of men - though the numbers of women are too small to say that 30 is different from 40% - ie they are the same as the men.) 3 women in Science and 1 in Engineering have won the US National Medal of Science.

5. They tried to prevent marginalization of women by putting them on committees.

So - to women of my generation, the MIT administration really solved the problems we described by a true partnership of women faculty being brought into the administration.

The question was - how would women in science at MIT feel today. As you might expect, women of my generation really can't believe their good fortune. Most of us are incredibly grateful.

Do we ever have problems? Of course - because you cannot quickly change the thinking of every person who STILL undervalues women relative to men for equal work (the Larry Summers problem) Personally I find that when this happens to me, I can get even madder than I used to since I have come to expect better - and usually am treated better that that now.

But the MOST important issue is-what about the women who came after us?
The real news is that on the whole they really are happy and they love MIT and they realize what a great advantage it is to be there professionally.

However, they STILL experience some of the same kinds of problems we did - but to a much lesser extent: For example, some say that students respect them less than male colleagues.
Some say that their field is sexist - they are right - some fields are, some aren't. Women say that Europe is worse than America - probably true again.

Then there are new problems: We were afraid to talk about children and babies, they want people to STOP talking about it as a women's issue! They do not want to be seen as mothers when they are at work, they want to be seen as scientists. They are thrilled to be parents of course and grateful for the MIT plans that make this possible now, but they want it to be seen as a FAMILY issue - not a women's issue.

They are delighted not to be excluded but they are overworked by being placed on TOO many committees. (LH note: there must be a woman on every committee at MIT now, which can take women away from research). We were omitted too much - they are over-included because of their small numbers.

The worst problem to my mind is the one they noted in every age group: MIT pays attention to searching for women candidates now. This leads to a kind of backlash that asks, does MIT lower standards to hire women? The answer is absolutely NO. This suggestion is really just another manifestation of gender bias.
We are not hiring above the pipe line in any field to my knowledge.
Why do people think you would not be able to find superb women when you look for them?
You only believe that if you really - unconsciously? - believe that women really aren't as good as men.

I have found that even when women win the Nobel Prize, someone is bound to tell me they did not deserve it or the discovery was really made by a man, or the important result was made by a man, or the woman really isn't all that smart. This is what discrimination looks like in 2011.

Do you find that women's contributions are undervalued where you are?
8  Comments  | Post a Comment

Dear Mad Dog,
I don't think the "too many committees" shows women are overvalued by their colleagues. Its an administrative rule, and its effect is to pull women out of the lab, evidently. But why put them on committees? It's partly because the same things aren't said if women are there that would be said if they are not. So it can be effective in increasing women's voice and power.
The sad part is, respect is founded mostly on grants and papers, assuming the women get credit for the ideas they do produce. And if committees pull them out of the research activities, that productivity could be reduced. it's hard to know what to do, other than getting enough women that they won't be overworked with committees compared to men.

From:  Laura Hoopes |  March 24, 2011

For women to get credit for their ideas and achievements, men need to be sure they have not been unfairly elevated. If they are convinced they cannot really do first rate science, nothing will convince them. I think Ben Barres' comments about how he was treated before and after his gender change are very telling. You covered those some time ago, Laura.
How to address this? I am almost certain that workshops and the like can't make much difference. Maybe the report is right, only getting more women in place can really fix the problem. I'm glad MIT is making progress in any case.

From:  Livi M |  March 24, 2011

It's great to get Nancy Hopkins' view on the new MIT report. I've been a fan of hers for years, and I know her methods (measuring lab space, etc) have been widely adopted. She has had a huge effect on fair treatment of female professors in terms of resources.
I wish these young MIT women were getting the respect they deserve. Laura, how about doing some spotlights on some of them on this site? We all need to get to know the great women scientists, we have trouble naming five, remember?

From:  Small Science Woman |  March 24, 2011

Hi Laura,
I think the complaint that women get put on too many committees shows that women are overvalued at MIT, although they still don't feel confident. They could do more research if women on committees were not demanded. What would be the cost of that change?

From:  mad dog |  March 23, 2011

I like the data showing women are succeeding in spite of these put-downs at MIT, but I wonder when MIT will reach a critical mass of women scientists and the atmosphere will change, so it will no longer be acceptable to claim women don't really have the goods? Obviously this misperception matters a lot to the women science faculty today!

From:  Laura Hoopes |  March 23, 2011

Hi Female Biology Professor,
I know what you mean. Maybe the ones who get skeptical looks tend to be confrontational about women's issues so that men are reminded they are activists often? I don't like confrontation, but if pushed to the wall, I'll speak out. I guess that would put me in the middle of the spectrum of assertiveness. Sometimes I pass easily, but I've had men say things that made me think they believed I was coasting instead of struggling because I got the benefit of the doubt as a female.

From:  SciFemXX |  March 23, 2011

Some women, ones who have fit into a science department for years, probably "pass" almost as if they were male scientists, while others always get a skeptical look with every comment or publication. I wonder if its possible to figure out what kind of characteristics of a woman scientist would elicit each type of response? And I'm ambivalent about which I want (I'm in the first category, but I don't like feeling like people think I'm a man).

From:  Female Biology Professor |  March 23, 2011

I think women are undervalued everywhere. That's why we make 77 cents for every dollar men make. I feel bad for these brilliant women at MIT who are discounted by their colleagues because they are perceived as affirmative action and not as real colleagues. Sometimes I think men don't believe women are really human beings.

From:  Scifeminista |  March 21, 2011
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