Women at MIT
As MIT welcomes its incoming students, 46 percent of whom are women, it also bids farewell to almost the same percentage of young women who are graduating from MIT. What future awaits these women at MIT and beyond as they immerse themselves in a university and in professions that are traditionally associated with men and their ways of achieving success? In the context of the global #MeToo movement, it is ever more crucial to face our challenges and continue to create a culture of inclusion and safety – which are necessary for our students to thrive, not only while they are at MIT, but beyond it as they go out into the world.
What is appallingly clear by now is that cases of sexual harassments are not episodic events that occur outside of the everyday, but rather are part of the structure and culture of our patriarchal society.
Sexual harassment is not separate from the systematic everyday inequality and gender subordination, argues Faculty Chair Susan Silbey. Normalization of women’s lower status, often subconscious, is a precursor to sexual harassment. And MIT has its own share of harassment incidents, including some high profile ones, while statistically its record is comparable to other universities in size and status.
We at MIT firmly believe that neither sexual harassment nor gender inequality should exist. The academic environment with its pronounced hierarchy with respect to students and professors, the labs with their built-in long hours and social isolation, and conferences with accompanying travel, present only some of the basic challenges that we must consider when building a women-friendly and harassment-free Institute. Achieving this goal requires cultural, psychological, material, and institutional commitments and an understanding on the part of each of us that past achievements need to be protected to move forward.
The 1990s were a time of change at MIT and the numbers reflect it. In 1994, only 15 tenured women were faculty members in the six departments of the School of Science, as compared to 194 men. Only nine women faculty belonged to the School of Engineering (“Study of the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT”). By 2011, the numbers had increased to 33 in Science and 35 in Engineering. This is a significant improvement given that prior to 1995 the number of women remained the same for more than a decade. This improvement resulted from years of systematic work that began with the “Report of the Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science” in 1996. In addition to the improvement in numbers, interviews with women faculty also reveal a significant improvement in the quality of life, recognition, and resource distribution.
However, these advances are not sufficient, and we must press forward because of the setbacks, stagnations, and a need for improvement of the condition of women at MIT. It is alarming to hear that the number of women faculty in some of the Schools at MIT has begun to drop in recent years.
Issues regarding equity in compensation and resource management need additional attention and action. To move forward with change, many women faculty at the recent women faculty dinner suggested reconstituting the gender equity committees that MIT set up in the '90s in every School. The success of female faculty and the improvement in the quality of their lives is important in inspiring both male and female students, as well as for normalizing the idea that women can excel in engineering and science.
MIT has been striving to deal with sexual harassment – a tip of the iceberg of misogyny – rigorously. Even before the appearance of #MeToo, over the past several years the Institute has been developing some tangible ways to address sexual misconduct and other forms of gender discrimination.
In 2015, The Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response was formed. During the academic year, 2017-2018, all faculty members were asked to complete an online training course to ensure they understood what constitutes sexual misconduct, how to intervene when it happens, and how to respond effectively to someone affected by it. All incoming students and staff are required to complete this program. Almost all employees (faculty included) are “responsible employees,” which means that they will now be trained to respond to a student who experienced sexual misconduct and to connect them to resources on campus. These individuals have an obligation to report cases of sexual misconduct to the Title IX office, whose officers then follow up with the student. However, a recently introduced Massachusetts bill, An Act relative to sexual violence on higher education campuses, requires that it is the employee, not the Title IX office member, who must follow up with the student. Sarah Rankin, MIT’s Title IX coordinator, expressed a concern that this requirement might limit the number of “responsible employees,” possibly impeding the efforts for more widespread responsibility. With up to 10,000 employees, it is impossible to train everyone to follow up with the cases of sexual misconduct. This requirement aside, MIT is supportive of the bill, which will greatly improve the overall landscape of safety on campus (see Shi; 2018 https://thetech.com/2018/05/03/campus-sexual-assault-bills).
Incoming students should note the multiple confidential resources on campus at work, such as Violence Prevention & Response (617-253-2300; 24 hours); the Bias Response Office; Mental Health & Counseling; Chaplains; MIT Medical; and the Ombuds Office. Another important resource for students is the Student Support Services or S3. Reminders about the available resources and a flowchart with pathways to deal with violence have been posted inside both the women’s and men’s bathrooms throughout the campus.
Investment From Everyone
Most female students at MIT would probably disagree with MIT’s outside reputation of being unfriendly to women. (Indeed, MIT was not friendly to women only a couple of decades ago.) MIT’s conscious effort to treat male and female students with equal support and attention might provide a temporary respite from the largely hostile and unsupportive workplaces in engineering that many women will encounter as they begin their jobs. According to Susan Silbey, female students in engineering believe in meritocracy and that their talents and hard work will be evaluated objectively and without gender bias. But experience presents counter to that: My women students interviewing for jobs in their senior year express a great disappointment when they realize that their potential employers treat them based on demeaning gendered and ethnoracial stereotypes. Meritocracy, unfortunately, does not characterize the gendered workplaces of engineering.
Given these experiences and circumstances, more must be done to ensure pathways to opportunity and equality after our students leave MIT. As political essayist Ellen Willis notes “. . . male supremacy was in itself a systemic form of domination – a set of material, institutionalized relations, not just bad attitudes.” (No More Nice Girls, 2012). A salient example of this is engineering, which is the most male-dominated field in the U.S. Only 13 percent of engineers are currently women. Large companies in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and elsewhere are being spotlighted on gender inequality and a culture of harassment. Thus, in addition to providing the best technical education, we must make sure our students can face these challenges so they may be able to succeed in engineering.
Many classes and activities offered by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences offer insights on inequality, marginality, and gender issues. Perhaps, in some cases, women engineers have to become feminists to instigate change in the social structure of their work environment. Some have already done so. And more people, including many of our graduating women engineers, are being trained to persevere, despite working in our currently flawed system, by relying on their hard work and believing in meritocracy. But we also must encourage them to question and transform the system.