Progress at MIT

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.

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8 Responses to Progress at MIT

  1. j0ns1m0ns says:

    Another interesting and thought-provoking post, Athene. Wanted to comment on one point, which is the issue I think you’ve mentioned previously of “expected behaviour” (e.g., raised voices in a committee meeting). Maybe it’s just me, but I feel this is a bit of a red herring. In my (certainly considerably more limited) experience of committees, there are sometimes characters whose modus operandi is to shout over others. They may tend more often to be male than female, but it seems to me they’re often looked down upon, and their perhaps worthwhile arguments are less effective, than those who speak calmly and rationally, irrespective of their sex. For example, I’m reminded of your wonderful Dr Centre of Attention (!

    I feel like I know which regulars in the committees I sit on tend to have worthwhile things to say. They’re rarely the individuals with the loudest voices and, off the top of my head, they’re roughly equally male and female.

    • I would like to believe that shouting was not a productive way to behave – for either gender. However, I have heard too many stories where that isn’t the case coming, I regret to say, from our very own university. I have certainly never seen someone slapped down publicly by the chair for doing it . Very often, though, it is less a case of shouting, more of haranguing and talking others down; that certainly seems well tolerated in my experience, although it can be horrible for the dynamics of a meeting.

  2. Nice piece, Athene. This reminds me of something that came up at an event last month at the Royal Society about how Marie Curie would have fared in today’s world – organized by L’Oreal, who offer some pretty fabulous grants for female scientists. Some of the recipients of the prize were there, and admitted that they felt a bit funny putting the award in their CV because it might not be seen as being very competitive, since it was a “women’s award” – regardless of the fact that it it still incredibly hard to win.

    • Thanks Jenny. I was sorry not to be able to get to the event you mention. It’s interesting that you bring up the L’Oreal awards, with which I have been and am associated (I’m chairing the judging for fellowships this year). My very first (main) blogpost was on this same subject of Prizes for Women (Only)? , so my thoughts about it are all written down already. But, in the context of the L’Oreal Fellowships I know that when I was a judge 3 years ago, several – if not all – of the short-listed candidates held prestigious fellowships (such as URF’s), meaning that they were perfectly capable of winning awards open to men as well as women. Thus, the additional cachet that the L’Oreal fellowships offer is a bit of celebration of being a woman, helping them to be a role model for future generations, as well as some useful cash. All the evidence is that young women want to know about role models so this aspect is important, uncomfortable though that may make the winners feel. L’Oreal PR gets the fellows’ profiles into diverse places (I know one last year was profiled in the Daily Mail, which may or may not be seen as attractive!) so their visibility in role model mode is widespread, reaching audiences that they on their own almost certainly wouldn’t reach; this has to be really important. So my advice would be, go ahead and celebrate and stick the award on your CV. After all, there are lots of prizes of the sort ‘best early career researcher in some very small field at a conference’, which no one would be embarrassed to write down, although the competition may well be a lot less stiff.

  3. Isn’t the name part of the problem of the L’Oreal awards?
    I mean, would men feel OK about having an Old Spice Fellowship?

    • Why not? The All Blacks advertise Rexona. Isn’t this an example of Athene’s onions: writing a physics engine for a computer game is respectable; elucidating the physical and chemical properties of a polymer in order to tweak he formulation of a cosmetic is not. A fellowship sposored by Sony is respectable; a felloship sponsored by L’Oreal is not.

      I think the L’Oreal Fellowships are a distraction. On the plus side they boost the careers of the recipients and give us an excuse to celebrate the achievements of women in science. Less positively, they can be viewed as reinforcing stereotypes, for example, women have childcare costs but men do not, and they do not encourage institutional change – few institutions would wish to enter the legal minefield of targetted fellowships, other than those few who already have exemptions. There are few interventions or initiatives that don’t have some drawbacks.

      Getting back to the original topic of the post, the value of the latest MIT report is that it demonstrates how much progress can be made when the issues are taken seriously, data is assessed with an open mind and people are willing to address the problems that are uncovered. However, it might be better to focus on making workplaces fair to everybody rather than contiually talking about the need for more women. (Though I have the impression that some men just find the concept of equality to be threatening.)

  4. Cara says:

    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.

    It’s less about finding the “right answer” and more about really understanding and accepting that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and THAT’S why every woman seems to be on her own figuring out her own “comfort zone”.

    Older women are dissed because they’re no longer decorative (while older men are distinguished). Younger women are dissed because they’re “not experienced” and are too cute to be smart (while younger men are energetic and enthusiastic).

    The more the word gets out that it’s not about being the “right kind” of woman, but about challenging this crap on ALL our behalfs because it’s ALL simply about BEING women, the more leverage we’ll all eventually have.

    Oh. And if men as a group would open their minds a bit and listen to women’s experience, instead of insisting that because THEY don’t see this that means it’s not REALLY happening, that would be great.

  5. ….However women are not applying for tenure-track jobs at research-intensive universities at the same rate that they are earning Ph.D.s the report says. …. Our data suggest that on average institutions have become more effective in using the means under their direct control to promote faculty diversity including hiring and promoting women and providing resources said committee co-chair Claude Canizares Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nevertheless we also find evidence for stubborn and persistent underrepresentation of women at all faculty ranks. ….The surveys revealed that most institutional strategies to try to increase the proportion of women in the applicant pool — such as targeted advertising and recruiting at conferences — did not show significant effectiveness the report says.

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