Female professors at MIT see progress, new challenges

Twelve years ago, MIT released a study on the status of women faculty in science, finding “subtle but pervasive” discrimination. According to the New York Times, this study led to a national focus on increasing opportunities for women in science. Now, the school has performed an evaluation that shows that progress has been made and highlights some of the challenges of addressing identity-based discrimination in an academic environment.

For one, there have been concrete changes in the number and position of women at MIT. From The Boston Globe:

According to the new report, the number of female professors in MIT’s School of Science has increased to 52, from 30 in 1999; women now make up 19 percent of its faculty. In the School of Engineering, the number of women faculty has jumped to 62 from 32 and represents 17 percent of the faculty.

While women are still minorities in these departments, progress clearly has been made. Further, the Globe reports, “Five women hold administrative posts in engineering and seven in science — including the heads of the chemistry, mechanical engineering, and earth science departments. The deans at two of MIT’s five schools are women.” Salaries are also reportedly more equitable; the original study found disparities in pay between women and men.

But the new evaluation also points to a lot of the struggles that pop up in academic settings where strides are made to combat institutional discrimination. While MIT has emphasized that they have broadened searches to find qualified women to join the faculty, there is a perception that women are in these positions because of their gender and are not actually as qualified as their male counterparts. Female students are having similar experiences, with their male counterparts saying they’re only at the school because of affirmative action. All committees must include a woman, but they are still a minority in the faculty so there are essentially increased expectations for participation, which cut into their research and consulting time and results in making less outside money than male colleagues.

And more subtle forms of discrimination persist: MIT now offers parental leave, but apparently some male professors use it to do outside work instead of care for a new child. Female faculty are expected to speak on work/life balance when on panels, and still have to deal with fitting into what one professor called an “acceptable personality range.”

This new array of problems sounds incredibly similar to attitudes I saw in college around race and affirmative action. A lot of cisgender white guys walk a bizarre logical line: we shouldn’t do anything about race or gender based discrimination because it doesn’t exist anymore, we’re all equal and should be treated equally. And if this means there are more cis white guys in academia that’s just because they’re, well, smarter. This means any student or faculty member from an underrepresented group can be perceived as not deserving their position – a more qualified cis white guy could be there instead.

What I quickly learned as a college organizer is that you can’t simply address formal discrimination and hope the problem goes away. Steps like those MIT has taken have to be accompanied by education, by teaching the school community about historic and contemporary discrimination, about the less matter-of-fact biases like an expectation that female professors act as a surrogate parent to their students — a complaint I heard from a number of my own teachers.

Women at MIT have seen exciting progress in the past 12 years. But the new evaluation also shows work to end gender discrimination in science can’t stop with changing the numbers.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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