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MIT Again Reviews Status of Women

March 21, 2011

When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a report in 1999 documenting obstacles faced by female professors (and their small numbers), the university quickly captured worldwide attention. Not only was MIT frank about the issues, but senior officials endorsed the report, and pledged reforms. The MIT study was the model for numerous other examinations of similar issues at colleges and universities.

Today MIT is releasing a new report on the status of women, finding "remarkable progress." The number of women on the faculty in the divisions of science (the subject of the original report) and engineering (the subject of a follow-up report) has nearly doubled in the years since the studies were first issued. There are also far more women in senior positions at MIT, which is today led by Susan Hockfield.

But the report also found significant problems, some of which are variations of issues raised frequently by studies of the status of women in academe. For instance, surveys of female faculty members at MIT (which had an unusually high participation rate of about 90 percent) found many women believe that they face significant "service" burdens that hold back their careers.

Other issues, however, reflect some of the advances made at MIT, which the report notes now pays much more attention to trying to attract female scientific talent. "One concern centers on faculty search procedures, which necessarily attempt to identify and eliminate biases in the search process," the report says. "This procedure can lead to the perception that women faculty are unfairly hired, and later, to the incorrect perception that standards of hiring and promotion are lower for women faculty. These misperceptions can erode the confidence of women faculty."

The report is a mix of demographic statistics about women at MIT and the views obtained in the surveys of and discussions with women at the institute. The report makes clear that gender parity is far from a reality at MIT, where men continue to hold solid majorities in most areas. At the same time, the significant roles for women at the institute (president, two of five academic deans, two of six department heads in the School of Science) led several women to tell the report's authors, "who would have thought it possible in our lifetime?"

The percentage of women in the School of Science grew from 8 percent to 19 percent since the first study was released, and many of those surveyed cited specific shifts in both policies and attitudes that contributed to these gains. In the School of Engineering, the gains brought the share of women on the faculty from 10 to 17 percent.

The report cites "[c]hange in attitudes among some male faculty including, (a) awareness that search committees must consciously look for women and minority applicants since diversity is important and since potentially qualified female and minority applicants can be overlooked; and (b) the fact that younger male faculty find it natural to have women in powerful leadership roles."

On a key work/family issue, the report finds that MIT has seen the "removal of the stigma for women bearing children," and that using family leave policies has become "standard practice for female (and male) faculty throughout MIT, a change that was visibly reinforced by locating a new day-care center on Stata’s first floor," referring to a major computer science facility. One woman told the authors of the report, “Today junior women faculty can have a child while taking family leave/extension of the tenure clock and get tenure, which had never happened in [the School of] Science at the time our committee was formed in 1995."

Backlash Issues

Several of the issues identified as problems for women today reflect a sense that MIT is officially in favor of advancing women at the university -- and a perception from some that such a commitment must mean that standards are being compromised at some level.

In one discussion held with women on the faculty as part of the preparation of the report, one faculty member reported that "undergraduate women ask me how they should deal with their male classmates who tell them that they only got into MIT because of affirmative action." That comment, the report says, "prompted some women to note that when they win an award or other recognition it is not uncommon for a colleague on the selection committee to say, 'it was long overdue that the award be given to a woman,' indicating that gender was a significant factor in the selection. These kinds of statements deprive the awardee of the satisfaction of knowing that it was purely because of respect for her accomplishments that she got the award."

With regard to hiring and promotion, the report notes that MIT has made significant efforts to educate search committees about the way bias can affect the way women are evaluated, and that the sources of bias affecting women at MIT can be scholars elsewhere. For instance, MIT has focused on the issue of letters of recommendation -- which can be extremely influential for highly coveted positions at an institution like MIT -- and the way women may be evaluated more on "temperament" than on their science.

But these various education efforts are having an unintended consequence, the report finds: "the perception that standards for hiring and promotion of women faculty are lower than for male faculty." One woman is quoted in a typical comment as saying: "In discussions I hear others saying 'oh, she’ll get tenure ... because we need to have women.' Makes it sound like the standards of excellence are not the same for men and women."

The report finds that these attitudes are "disquieting to women faculty," quoting women as saying, "I am very worried about making too much effort to recruit women, and the perception that women are not as good.” And: "I felt I was invited to interview because I was dazzling, but now I wonder...."

All Women Aren't 'Soft and Sweet'

The report notes that one of the continuing problems faced by women is a perception that they are all "soft and sweet" and possess certain stereotypical characteristics, and that they are somehow disappointing when they don't fit into those expectations.

"There is an expectation of niceness, sweetness. It’s everywhere. Students, collaborators all make this mistake," one woman told the authors of the report.

The flip side of these expectations is also problematic, the report says. It notes that "assertive behavior may be judged as inappropriately aggressive in a woman, but applauded in a man." One faculty member commented that the “acceptable personality range is narrower for women than men” and that “at a retreat, a male colleague commented on a top woman giving a talk 'she’s awfully aggressive, isn't she?'"

Related to these stereotypes, women reported that it is assumed that they -- more than their male colleagues -- will make time to be a mentor, and will be willing to talk about such issues as work/family balance before any audience. In fact, some women reported that they don't have time to be mentors or a desire for public discussion of their work/family issues.

Work and Family and Bias

On the issue of work/family balance, the report notes that there is a specific set of "biological challenges" faced by women that are not the same as those for men. And the report applauds policies on family leave, child care and other related issues that have helped many women (and men).

But the report notes that even though "family friendly" policies are open to and used by men as well as women, many female faculty members feel that these issues are considered theirs alone. One woman was quoted as saying: "Why does 100 percent of the conversation about balancing work and family only involve women? At a departmental visiting committee, I was asked in hushed tones, 'How’s daycare?' I wanted to say, 'Why did you ask me, I don’t have any kids?'"

And some women interviewed cited stereotyping, "especially among older male faculty, that being a parent and a successful MIT scientist is not possible." One woman told the authors of the report: “An older colleague told me I would not get tenure if I was bouncing a kid on my knee at night."

Generally though, the report notes that women feel much more included at MIT than did those interviewed for the original studies on the status of women at the university. In several instances, women reported that they are treated better at MIT than when they interact as part of the international scientific world.

One woman was quoted as saying: "My field is bad [for women] in Europe. I won’t even go there any more. Germany and Switzerland are terrible for women in my field."

Another said: "I am tired of sending notes to organizers of scientific meetings telling them to put women on scientific programs as speakers. It is embarrassing to have to do this. I know many women scientists who do it. There need to be mechanisms that make it unnecessary for professional women scientists to have to do this, such as requiring there be women on the program in order to receive federal funding for a meeting. NIH used to require this. But what can one do about meetings not funded by NIH? Meetings in Europe are often the worst."

 

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