Being Exceptional

One of the books I read over Christmas was the 2023 book by Kate Zernike, The Exceptions. It is a story about that committed band of sixteen female scientists at MIT, led by Nancy Hopkins, who built up the evidence base to show just how real – and substantial – the discrimination against women scientists in their institution was. It is a sobering read. I was very familiar with the outcome of their investigations, which were reported in 1999, but the stories of disadvantage spanning many years prior to the report were new to me. Gripping and dispiriting reading. I am almost exactly 10 years younger than Hopkins, and fared considerably better than she did, but nevertheless much of what is related in this book feels very familiar.

The report itself was one of those seminal moments in the (gradual) path towards equity for women in science, rather like – in the UK – Sally Davies’ intervention in 2011, requiring Medical Schools that wanted to obtain funding as Biomedical Research Centre to get an Athena Swan Silver Award. Whatever readers may feel about the Athena Swan awards now, Sally’s actions focussed minds, and not just in the Clinical sector but across higher education in the UK. Likewise, if rather earlier, the MIT report showed up just how much scientific research in universities was not meritocratic in the way most people wanted to believe (including Hopkins). It forced many departments to look at their own processes: around appointments, promotions and all the behaviours that constituted their culture, and take note that women almost invariably faced disadvantage of one sort or another. It might be a lower salary, not being invited to sit on key committees, not being allocated funding for students, being denied the opportunity to apply for funding, lack of space, results being attributed to someone else and, of course, direct harassment of different sorts. Sadly, too much of this will still be familiar to women in the field now, however much things have shifted in the right direction.

When I read the report, back in 1999, it was just after I was elected to the Royal Society, so I was myself already a senior scientist in Cambridge. Yet as I read it – drawn to my attention by a male scientist at MIT who I knew from my time in the US – it felt depressingly familiar, even though I hadn’t previously recognized what was described. It is so easy to attribute lack of progress or success to one’s own failings. Often that may be the right attribution but, particularly if you are a minority scientist, not necessarily always. That feeling that your voice doesn’t carry the same weight as your white male colleagues in committee meetings may well be correct. The suspicion that conversations are going on about pulling together a large grant behind closed doors in meetings you are not invited to attend, may be entirely accurate. Promotions may go to male colleagues whose CV isn’t actually any better than your own. These were events that were described in 1999, with evidence, to many people’s surprise back then. Now, there is less surprise about such incidents, but that doesn’t mean such things don’t continue to happen.

Meritocracy is such an attractive concept, but none of us are necessarily that good at ensuring it happens. Bias comes in a multitude of ways; perhaps we are still discovering just in how many ways. It used to be simply described – as in The Exceptions – for the case of women. Then people recognized that ethnic background also should be taken into account as a situation where bias might creep in. In the UK, increasingly people note that accent may matter, as indicating your class and background. A researcher’s ‘pedigree’, i.e. which department or PhD supervisor they had, may get unreasonably factored in. I suspect everyone does this to some extent, there is no point pretending any of us is completely free of bias of one kind or another, but it can still lead to a golden boy (usually) getting a job because they’ve come up some smooth ladder, unlike their competitors who have struggled against disadvantage. We have to keep trying harder.

The world Hopkins grew up in, indeed the world in which I grew up, had very different attitudes to both the idea of educating women to higher degrees and encouraging them to have careers. Radcliffe, where Hopkins attended, had in its 1964 yearbook (as I learned from Zernicke’s book) the memorable quote

‘The young women of today are a race of culturally induced schizophrenics, They are reared and trained to be the equals of men…Yet these women are also fed the Great American myth of house and home…’

Hopkins absolutely felt that tension.  I recall a woman, perhaps 30 years older than me, who told me how much easier it had been for her, since making that decision just wasn’t an option. She followed her husband, let nature take its course about children, and only returned to the academic fold as a College teaching fellow in later life. She felt that my generation, who had to make explicit choices, had it harder. I’m not sure I agreed with her at the time, liking the fact that I could try to muddle through having both children and a career (and for many years that was something of a muddle).

Women still face that choice, and may still face significant disadvantage if they are surrounded by colleagues who feel having children means a woman can’t be serious about her science, something I’ve never heard said of a man who has children. Undoubtedly the world has moved on since Hopkins entered academia. If you are in any doubt, read The Exceptions. But is simply hasn’t moved on far enough despite so many of the issues being out in the open. The pressure for further change to support all minorities, not just women, needs to be maintained.


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