This week saw the publication of a report from MIT entitled: A Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, 2011. This is a follow up report to an earlier ground-breaking report published in 1999 and details, not only what is described as ‘an overwhelmingly positive view’, but also some of the issues that remain. Indeed it appears that new problems have arisen as a rather direct consequence of actions taken earlier. Nevertheless not only has MIT made very significant steps in improving the climate for women working there on the faculty, but it should be applauded for its very public statements – both in 1999 and this year – about what it hasn’t (yet) got right. The self-examination and reflection that the institution has gone through is something that many other institutions around the world could profit from emulating.
I first came across the earlier Report soon after its publication, when it was brought to my attention by a (male) professor at MIT who asked me if its findings tallied with my own experiences. At that time I was already a fairly senior professor at Cambridge, having just been elected to the Royal Society, but I hadn’t really given much thought to my gender. I had just kept my head down and got on with the job, thinking things that didn’t feel comfortable or ‘right’ were due to my own failings not systemic issues. To some extent, the MIT report sensitised me to my situation – and for that I was not particularly grateful at the time. The abstract in the 1999 report says
In contrast to junior women, many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT.
I realised this was true of me. I had reached a standing where I might have been expected to be better integrated into the decision-making process than I seemed to be, and I hadn’t fully appreciated this. As the MIT women found – in their case often about resources and salaries – when they compared notes they realised that issues that they had thought were peculiar to them, were in fact generic and happened to many women. I looked around me, and I think I realised that my own institution at the time probably wasn’t that different. At MIT the pressure the female faculty were able to bring to bear, collectively, on the leadership of the institution has led to many changes for the better, which to some extent the new report is able to celebrate. The very fact that I have been appointed my own University’s Gender Equality Champion is equally testament to the seriousness with which the issue is now addressed here. However, both there and in my own institution ‘we are not there yet’, as the report says.
The new report is well worth a read. It is full of insight into the complexities of trying to resolve the issues that beset the levelling of the playing field for women in academic science. I would like to highlight a few of these, bearing in mind that some issues don’t really directly translate to the UK and so I won’t discuss them further. Included under this heading I would include issues about tenure clocks, which I discussed previously and some of the resourcing issues (since salaries aren’t negotiated at all levels in quite the same way).
MIT has seen an overall increase in female faculty numbers over this period from a mere 10% to around 19% in the Faculty of Science and it is quite clear that this in itself is felt as having led to a very different climate for all women, reducing some of the isolation that was initially felt. However, the numbers are still not particularly impressive given that this School will include the biological sciences where the undergraduate population will be at least evenly split between the genders. (The comparable figure in the School of Engineering is 16%). However anxiety remains around hiring policies, with a
perception that standards for hiring and promotion of women faculty are lower than for male faculty
This is a completely pernicious perception, that is sufficiently intangible it is hard to counter yet can linger in people’s minds and damage the self-confidence of recent hires, as summed up by the quote
I felt I was invited to interview because I was dazzling, but now I wonder…
This is akin to the problems I discussed about positive discrimination and the deliberate hiring of people from minorities in the earlier post. (Interestingly, the issue of the difference in how letters of recommendation are written for men and women is highlighted in the Report as part of the problem; this is a topic I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while, and one day I’ll get around to it.). So, by increasing the percentage of women faculty, others assume this has been done by positive discrimination, thereby giving the women an easier ride into the system. As I say, pernicious, particularly since no one is likely to say explicitly to a new female hire ‘you’re not as good as the rest of us’, merely act that way indirectly. I believe this is an obvious potential pitfall, and the senior management need to make clear, every time a hire is made, that no barriers have been lowered to make it easier for a woman to be appointed, and stamp on any comments made in their hearing that might suggest people don’t believe this to be the case.
I was more interested in the perhaps rather subtle point about ‘expected behaviour’, which illustrates another trap for women.
There is an expectation of niceness, sweetness. It’s everywhere. Students, collaborators all make this mistake.
Act that way, and you won’t get very far. But if you don’t then the behaviour is seen as inappropriately aggressive, and may also be counterproductive. Additionally, not all women wanted to be expected to be willing to talk about work-life balance or be a mentor; some did, but others saw this as equally unwelcome stereotyping. Nevertheless, the junior faculty certainly wanted to be mentored (although it was pointed out that this was not peculiar to women). Interestingly, if regrettably, the recommendations really didn’t tackle this particular set of challenges. I think it is undoubtedly the case that what is seen as acceptable behaviour in a man, which might for instance, include raised voices at a committee meeting would, if done by a woman be seen as not acceptable. But sitting saying nothing, although perhaps regarded as OK behaviour, is really not going to be productive in any situation. Every woman has to work out for herself, where her own comfort zone and personality places her in the spectrum of behaviour and constantly assess whether this is working for her. It is exhausting and a minefield and I wish I knew what the right answer was.
MIT has clearly done an excellent job of increasing the representation of women at the highest levels, and involving women in decision-making committees throughout the institution. Unfortunately that comes at a cost (one I know only too well). It means that the relatively few senior women can end up with an extremely high workload of committees or, as the report describes it, a ‘burden of service’. As one woman put it
I have felt scientifically sacrificed serving the Institute and the department, and not appreciated.
It is a real double-bind. Women should be represented, it is in part the appropriate counter to the marginalisation mentioned earlier, but if it means you have no time to talk to your PhD students or write grant applications it does become a personal sacrifice, detrimental to your career, to satisfy some nebulous ‘public good’. My answer to this would be women should only agree to serve on committees when they have something specific to offer, such as relevant experience, and not just to fulfil some quota to satisfy the powers that be. For myself I have learnt to act that way and would encourage other women not always to be flattered into doing something of no interest, relevance or useful outcome to them. A little selfishness doesn’t come amiss in this situation.
So, the report is an interesting overview of a moving target; a climate of improvement can be seen but with new issues constantly emerging. Women academics – and indeed men too – reading this should probably make multiple copies of the report and distribute it around their own departments and institutions to demonstrate both, that change can be made without sacrificing quality of output, and that senior management really can make a difference to the climate for women. Furthermore, MIT women have amply demonstrated the power of gathering data and sharing information, thereby putting pressure on the leadership to work out constructive steps to improve matters. MIT collectively has also shown that holding up one’s hand and saying mea culpa is actually a really powerful message which has and will continue to resonate in many individual breasts as well as across whole institutions.