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.

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  1. Posted March 21, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    While I was a graduate student in Physics I had an interesting observation pointed out to me. Because of the small number of women in Physics (and the natural sciences in general) the women faculty members get stuck with a larger amount of service hours per faculty member than the men. Service being sitting on various committees, basically any department/university related activity not related to their research or teaching. During graduate school, I was very active in our student association and sat on many committees myself and found that one particular early career female faculty member was on all of the same committees. The argument I have heard for why this happens is that committees want to have a woman on it, for diversity, or however else you want to say it. But, in general, departments try to limit the service hours young faculty have to do when they are trying to achieve tenure to build up their research programs. This means that the young female faculty members are put at a disadvantage as they get stuck with more service hours than their male counterparts.

    So, assuming that the fact that female faculty members spend more time doing service activities because of a goal to try and make sure women are on committees to have their voices heard, it leads to the question, overall, what is the better course of action. Sacrifice some of the female voices on committees to give tenure track female faculty members the same opportunity at success as their male counterparts, or keep it the way it is and have female faculty members at a disadvantage because they have less of their professional time to devote to their research, which ultimately is what gets them tenure. Until the numbers get closer to 50/50 I don’t see anything here but a trade off. And my experience sitting on several committees, is that many accomplish nothing, so I would say cut back on the service, sacrificing having women on every single committee. The only way to expel the myth that women are only their because of affirmative action is to give them the same opportunity as the men and watch them succeed.

  2. Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Two things come to my mind when reading this article.

    1.) There was a comic (I can’t find it on the internet so I’ll try to describe it) that had a little boy with a robot on one side and a little girl with a doll on the other side. Both asked the question “what does it do?” The caption above it said something like “Why there are so few female engineers.” Basically, saying from childhood we are taught what to like based on our gender from childhood. So the idea that women just aren’t interested or aren’t smart enough to be in a certain field or line of work is BS, there are reasons why we have less numbers in certain areas.


    2.) Many of the males at a school like MIT , especially white males, are given many passes their entire life just for being male. They have had privileges that women don’t have that got them to where they are today. So therefore I think affirmative action is great. I completely agree with Jos, you can’t just increase the number of women and expect the discrimination to stop, there should be further steps taken to educate people who misunderstand how discrimination works.

  3. Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    It’s a less visible issue, but something else that should be studied and possibly addressed is discrimination at the graduate student level. I have only my personal observations, so it’s impossible for me to say that this is a widespread trend, but there’s a significant difference in the way male and female students are treated.

    In my experience, this has two main symptoms:
    1) Male faculty members who either discriminate openly against women (in traditional, patriarchy-approved ways like commenting on their appearance, inappropriate forms of address, etc.) or go to an extreme on the other end, refusing to criticize or challenge female students (with one in my experience saying explicitly that his failure to criticize a bad presentation was because he didn’t want to deal with “a girl crying in my office.” The ‘girl’ in question, of course, was a ~25 year-old woman with a college degree in a laboratory science.) Not all are like this, but too many.
    2) Faculty members who assign group responsibilities in a blatantly sexist manner. Clerical or unskilled jobs (ordering supplies, scheduling meetings, cleaning the lunch room etc.) are assigned to women, while ‘techy’ jobs like maintaining or repairing instrumentation are assigned to men. It’s pervasive – across multiple groups I’ve observed at several institutions, and even in some groups headed by women (all groups I’ve seen without this problem have been headed by women, but not all groups headed by women have been without this problem). It’s blatantly disrespectful and unfair. Which would you rather have on your resume coming out of grad school, “Maintained and repaired group GC-MS and HPLC instruments,” or, “Cleaned and stocked group break room?”

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