The Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT (1999), and Pres. Vest's frank and open acknowledgment of the Study's findings of a pattern of subtle yet undeniable gender discrimination at the Institute, served, in the words of Lotte Bailyn, to "put gender on the table."1 For an institution that long prided itself on being a meritocracy, discussions of gender, racial, and other inequalities or biases were not easy to initiate. Pres. Vest's leadership was pivotal in helping to put gender on the table at MIT, and subsequently at other institutions around the US and across the globe. Many have cited the important role that Vest played in acknowledging what came to be called the "MIT Report" – where other institutions would have dismissed or buried it – and in calling for swift action to address the concerns it raised.
In commending the 1999 Study to the MIT faculty, President Vest said: "Please read it, contemplate its messages and information, and act upon it personally and collectively."2 These words were a call to action, and many at MIT and beyond sat up and took notice. Personally, many senior faculty at MIT stepped up to become mentors and allies of junior women faculty, and publicly voiced their support for gender equity. Collectively, the Deans of the five Schools acted to produce reports on the status of women in their faculties, which were subsequently released in 2002. These reports became the basis for concrete action to improve the status of women faculty and promote gender equity at MIT.
On the basis of the recommendations set forth in these reports, many important reforms to ensure gender equity and eliminate bias were put in place at MIT, and new family policies, benefiting all, were rolled out. Committees were established to monitor faculty salaries and other equity issues, and to oversee faculty search and promotion procedures. The number of women faculty at the Institute rose, and women were promoted to important decision-making positions within the administration. In December 2004, Susan Hockfield, a noted scientist, was appointed the first woman president of MIT. The impact of the MIT Report has been so profound, that when Prof. Nancy Hopkins recently reread the 1995-1996 report to Dean Birgeneau she noted: "It felt to me as if it could have been written a hundred years ago, because there has been so much change and progress since then."3
The far-reaching impact of the MIT Report has been judged by many as one of the signal contributions of MIT to the broader American and global public in the Institute's history. As David Kaiser has written in Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision (2010):
"While other institutions downplayed the problem [of equality and discrimination] or invoked fears of litigation to justify inaction, MIT became a role model in the aftermath of its famous report in 1999 on the status of women faculty in the School of Science."4
MIT's 150th anniversary provided an occasion to reflect back on the significance of the MIT Report. Lotte Bailyn wrote an account of the Report and its legacy, "Putting Gender on the Table," (see press release here), which was published with an epilogue by Nancy Hopkins in David Kaiser's edited volume Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision (2010), and a panel on The Women of MIT, which offered both a retrospective and an assessment of current challenges, was convened at the 150th anniversary celebrations (view the videos here).
The research collected in the Reports (1999, 2002), and the writings of Bailyn, Hopkins and others continue to serve as the basis for discussions of gender equity in academia across the US. Bailyn, for example, has offered an important assessment of "lessons learned" for academic careers and gender equity from the MIT experience.5
Prof. Nancy Hopkins has noted that, along with institutional reforms, dramatic changes in climate around issues of gender (and racial or other) bias in the wake of the MIT Report have been equally significant. Hopkins writes: "Perhaps most important, it became possible to discuss these issues openly, ending the painful years of isolation and frustration that many women experienced."6 With regard to this crucial issue of climate, the legacy of Pres. Vest's early leadership to ensure equity and inclusion at MIT, carried on today by President L. Rafael Reif, is evident in the creation of the new position of Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO) in June 2013. Prof. Edmund Bertschinger of the Physics department was appointed MIT's first ICEO, and given this charge:
The Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO) serves as a thought leader on the subjects of community, equity, inclusion, and diversity; a focal point for organizing MIT's related activities and conversations; and a hands-on practitioner who disseminates best practices and inspires the awareness and enthusiasm to help them flourish. Drawing on the strength and energy of our extraordinary diversity of experiences and backgrounds, the ICEO shall lead MIT to make practical progress on a daily basis toward cultivating a caring community focused on MIT's shared values of excellence, meritocracy, openness, integrity, and mutual respect. This work shall be carried out in ways that enhance the life and work of MIT faculty, students, postdocs, and staff, with the aim of making everyone here feel that MIT is home. The ICEO reports to the Provost.7
In sum, the legacy of the MIT Reports is evident in broad efforts to effect social change, as Lotte Bailyn has so eloquently written:
"The effort to make university faculties fully inclusive is a continuous process that is necessary and important not only for the individuals involved but also for the universities as well as society at large. The MIT Report has been and continues to be a player in this evolution."8
As we celebrate this history, it is also important to remember that work remains to be done. Nancy Hopkins powerfully reminds us:
"Only when it is no longer front-page news that a woman has done this or that, only when the number of women in Congress reflects the number of women in the country, only when the number of women on the MIT faculty more closely reflects the number of women we train, and only when women and men interact professionally without regard to gender, will we have achieved equality. I hope MIT will continue to be a leader toward these goals."9
The MIT Program in Women's and Gender Studies (founded in 1984) strives to be a place where, in the words of Nancy Hopkins, "it [is] possible to discuss these issues openly, ending the painful years of isolation and frustration that many" students, faculty, and staff have experienced. The vital issues raised in the history of the MIT Report and its aftermath are addressed in classes such as Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies (WGS 101); Gender and Technology (WGS 115); The Science of Race, Sex and Gender (WGS 225); Feminist Thought (WGS 301); Gender, Power, Leadership and the Workplace (WGS.150); and many others. On this occasion we wish to express our gratitude to the women scientists who led the charge on the MIT Report, and to all those who labored on the gender equity committees established in its wake, but most particularly to Pres. Charles M Vest, without whose courageous leadership this story might have taken a very different turn.
In continuing to strive for gender equity and the ideals of meritocracy, we seek to remain true to the legacy of Pres. Charles M Vest.
In 2014, WGS co-sponsored the production of a video created by Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) on the history of the "MIT Report" and its continuing legacy today.
1. Lotte Bailyn, "Putting Gender on the Table," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010.
2. Pres. Charles M Vest, "Preface,” MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XI, No. 4, March 1999. (http://web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/sos.pdf)
3. Nancy Hopkins, "Afterword To Chapter 8," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 190.
4. David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 5.
5. Lotte Bailyn (2003), "Academic Careers and Gender Equity: Lessons Learned from MIT." Gender, Work & Organization, 10: 137–153. doi: 10.1111/1468-0432.00008. See also Nancy Hopkins, "MIT and Gender Bias: Following up on Victory," Chronicle of Higher Education (June 11, 1999).
6. Nancy Hopkins, "Afterword To Chapter 8," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 190.
8. Lotte Bailyn, "Putting Gender on the Table," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010.
9. Nancy Hopkins, "Afterword To Chapter 8," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 190.