massachusetts institute of technology

MIT 1990-2004: The Vest Years
Achieving Equity for Women Faculty Achieving Equity for Women Faculty

When I began teaching 30 years ago, women students in engineering were still relatively rare. The same was true in most branches of science. Gradually, though, the numbers of women engineering students began to rise. By the time I arrived at MIT, there were still relatively few women faculty in science and engineering fields. Like many members of my generation, I blithely assumed that as we encouraged more young women to consider science and engineering, both as undergraduates and then as graduate students, the problem of gender inequity would resolve itself. We believed it was all a matter of filling the pipeline.

The reality has proven much more complex. Picture a pipeline into which flow elementary school girls and boys with an interest in science and mathematics. The pipeline carries a modest percentage of these students to advanced studies and academic careers in math and science. But the continuing puzzle is that at each level —high school, college, graduate school, post-doctoral study, and then professorship —the pipeline “leaks” women disproportionately. The farther you go up the pipeline, the lower the percentage of women.

In higher education, we have generally tried to shift the blame for this imbalance to the lower end of the pipeline —to the failings of our K-12 system. Historically, this is how the discussion went —round and round and going nowhere, based on limited facts and a nagging sense that we didn’t want to look at the problem because no one really knew how to fix it —and besides, we hoped, it was someone else’s to fix.

And then in 1999, I was presented with some facts that recast the entire situation. Working with all but one of the tenured women professors in MIT’s School of Science, Professor Nancy Hopkins had prepared a report that detailed the remarkably consistent experiences and personal views of marginalization and discouragement that accompanied these women’s outstanding scientific and educational achievement. Much of this important information was quantified in a new way.

As I read the report, I could only think of the old artist’s trick of suddenly finding a revealing new perspective on a familiar situation by standing on your head. I had always believed that gender bias in academia was part perception and part reality.

The report clearly demonstrated that the reality dominates. I was especially affected by the uniformity of the experiences and personal reactions of these faculty members. And I was frankly stunned by the statement of one senior professor that decades before, as a young faculty member, she herself had felt happy and well-supported; the problems crept up gradually as her stature rose. This made clear that the problem was not simply one of old-fashioned male chauvinism that would fade away with its generation.

If this were just a matter for MIT, simple shame might have been the appropriate reaction. But as Professor Hopkins can attest, her report produced an avalanche of letters, calls and emails from women scientists and engineers in academia and industrial research labs across the country and around the world. They said this was their story, too.

All that talent —and all that frustration! Dean of Science Bob Birgeneau and I quickly realized that even if there were some legal risk to recognizing bias (however unwitting it may have been), a far greater danger lay in allowing an entire class of gifted faculty to come to work each day feeling somewhat miserable due to structural flaws we had the power to correct.

Both in the School of Science and across the Institute, we have made concerted and systematic efforts to correct the kinds of discriminatory practices cited in the Hopkins report and to prevent them in the future. By 2002, MIT had completed equity studies of all its Schools and had helped lead peer institutions across the country to examine conditions for women faculty. An institution dedicated to accelerating progress in science and technology must make the most of all the talent and initiative that comes our way. This is our permanent challenge.

Essays by Charles M. Vest