In 1994, a small group of senior women faculty in the sciences at MIT, led by Professor Nancy Hopkins, began meeting to discuss their frustrations at being unable to gain the space or resources needed to pursue their research – resources that were readily available to other junior faculty – and their shared experiences of what Hopkins has called "subtle but damaging exclusion and bias" based on their gender.1 The outcome of these meetings and discussions was a letter, signed by fifteen women science faculty, to Dean of Science Bob Birgeneau, expressing their concerns.
In 1995, Dean Birgeneau established a committee on the status of women faculty in science, charged with collecting data and assessing the status of female faculty in the School of Science. Three senior men, prominent scientists, were included on this committee. This proved to be crucial, as Nancy Hopkins has recalled, since Bob Silbey, then Head of the Chemistry department, was instrumental in persuading the Dean to provide numerical data to the committee.1 The committee collected data on salaries, space, and other resources, and also interviewed all of the women faculty members in the School of Science. This combination of numerical data and personal narratives of women's lived experiences as faculty at MIT proved critical, as the committee determined that an examination of both types of data was essential to understanding the full picture of gender discrimination, particularly the role that gender bias had played in shaping women faculty's lives and careers. In 1996, the committee submitted a confidential report to the dean, provost, and president. A second committee, chaired by Prof. Molly Potter, was appointed in 1997 to continue this work, which had consumed much of Hopkins' time for two years. The findings of both committees were compiled in a confidential report outlining the gender inequity faced by women faculty in the School of Science. At the urging of Prof. Lotte Bailyn, who was chair of the faculty at the time, the committees summarized their findings, and the processes they had used in producing their reports, and presented a public version of the report to the MIT faculty in 1999.1 This report, which came to be known as the "MIT Report," was published in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, with an important and historical introductory statement from Pres. Charles M Vest commending the Report to the faculty. Key findings of the Report included:
- that as of 1994, the percentage of women faculty in the School of Science was small (8%) and had not changed significantly for "at least 10 and probably 20 years." There were only fifteen tenured women faculty in the School (compared to 194 men)
- that numerical data indicated significant differences between male and female faculty in terms of salary, space, awards, resources, and response to outside offers (despite the equal professional accomplishments of the female faculty members, many of whom belonged to the National Academy of Sciences and/or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences)
- that many tenured women faculty in the School of Science had experienced "professional marginalization," including exclusion from important decision-making roles within their departments2
These findings supported the committee's contention of gender inequities in MIT's School of Science. The MIT Report had broader significance because the authors had, in their own words, "identified the forms that gender 'discrimination' takes in this post-Civil-Rights era. They found that discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even in the light of obvious good will. Like many discoveries, at first it is startling and unexpected. Once you 'get it', it seems almost obvious."3
Many have hailed Pres. Vest's key role in this story when, instead of dismissing or burying the report, he instead accepted the findings and made his famous declaration supporting the report's contention of gender discrimination: “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”4 These words have been remembered and repeated by many over the course of what has been nearly two decades, because they served as an important acknowledgment of the reality of what the MIT Report identified as "twenty-first-century discrimination."5 For those who believed that the battle for equal rights had been won in the Civil Rights era, the MIT Report was a wake-up call. Vest recognized that work remained to be done, and he called upon the MIT faculty to undertake this work.
The open publication of the MIT Report was a watershed moment that drew national attention to MIT. While many lauded the report, and the courageous stance taken by Vest in moving rapidly to address the problems, there were also detractors. (Bailyn 2010 details why the alternative explanations offered by detractors proved false.)6 Ultimately, however, the MIT Report led to concrete action at MIT and across the nation to address gender inequities and bias in academia and the scientific professions. The impact of the MIT Report has been described thus:
University reports can go unheeded and gather dust, but the Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science was widely quoted in the media and had far reaching consequences, both inside and outside MIT. Within MIT, President Vest set a goal of achieving gender equity in the future, and he commissioned the Provost to ensure that this was the case. Together, with input from women faculty, Provost Brown and President Vest also established a Council on Faculty Diversity to identify fundamental issues underlying marginalization and the continued under-representation of both women and minorities on the faculty, and to try to devise institutional solutions for these problems.
Outside MIT, the Study on the Status of Women faculty in Science resonated widely with professional women. The problems identified in the MIT report proved to be essentially universal for professional women in the US. Further, the problem had frequently been ignored or misunderstood. President Vest held a conference of nine university Presidents to discuss these issues, and the Presidents made a commitment to address gender bias at their own schools.7
In the wake of the report, and the nation-wide discussion over gender equity in higher education that ensued, MIT launched the Gender Equity Project and then-Provost Bob Brown established committees to examine the status of women faculty across the five Schools of Science, Engineering, Management, Architecture and Urban Planning, and Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. After a two-year intensive study that was partially supported by the Ford Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies, these committees produced their respective reports, which were published with a general overview in 2002. The Faculty Diversity Committees within each School were also charged by the Provost to "make corrections of inequities when they were documented."8 Summaries of the reports were released to the public. The Overview to the reports from the five Schools, authored by Professors Nancy Hopkins, Lotte Bailyn, Lorna Gibson, and Evelynn Hammonds, presented these findings:
Findings: Generic Issues, Specific Manifestations
Not surprisingly, the Committees found that most female and male faculty fully appreciate the many advantages of a faculty position at MIT, with its access to exceptional students, colleagues, and resources for research. Nonetheless, across many departments and probably in all Schools, the experiences of male and female faculty differ, with women more frequently reporting negative experiences. The most striking finding from the four new reports is that many of the issues that differentially affect the professional lives of women faculty are shared in all five Schools of MIT. This might not have been readily apparent in the absence of these detailed studies.
Generic issues that differentially impact the professional lives of female vs male faculty are: marginalization; isolation resulting from small numbers of women faculty; residual effects of past inequities, particularly around salary and access to resources; and greater family responsibilities. Marginalization accumulates from a series of repeated instances of disadvantage which compound over an academic career.9
The full texts of the Reports of the Committees on the Status of Women Faculty (2002) can be found here: http://web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/
"The One Significant Difference"
Although it was senior women faculty themselves who took the initiative in this process, coming together to effect social change, on this occasion we wish to draw special attention to the contributions of Pres. Charles M Vest. Without Pres. Vest's crucial public support and the emphasis placed by his administration on solving this problem once identified, it is doubtful that so much progress could have been made so fast. As highlighted by Lotte Bailyn in her account of this history, an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 24, 1999 identified Vest as the "one significant difference" that prevented the MIT Report from being ignored or shelved like other similar reports before it. The editorial noted:
"The difference this time, however, is that the respected president of MIT – one of the most prestigious universities in the nation – not only did not ignore the report, he acknowledged the existence of the discrimination and took steps to redress it."10
Professor Nancy Hopkins similary noted the remarkable impact of Pres. Vest's stance in recalling her reaction to his famous comments supporting the MIT Report:
"I had always believed I would go to my grave before almost anyone, and certainly any college president, would come to understand the essentially invisible problem that had damaged the lives of so many generations of professional women. But now the President of MIT have come to realize it, and was decent and brave enough to acknowledge it, despite the obvious political and legal hazards of doing so."11
Pres. Vest's public statements on the problem of gender bias, his call for swift and effective action, his personal support to women faculty at MIT were vital to this chapter of the Institute's history and to change across the nation. Indeed, many have hailed Vest for leading what they have called an "engineer's approach" (or the "MIT way") to solving social problems. After the publication of the 1999 Report, Vest undertook numerous initiatives, one of which was the Presidents' Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering, hosted at MIT in January 2001. Through this and other endeavors, MIT helped to spread the impact of the Report far beyond the Institute – and Pres. Vest worked tirelessly in these efforts.12 The legacy of Pres. Charles M Vest for women's rights, and for the broader cause of equity and inclusion, has thus been profound indeed.
1. Nancy Hopkins, "Afterword To Chapter 8," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 188.
2. "A Study on the Status of Women in Science at MIT," MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. X!, No. 4, March 1999.http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html
3. "A Study on the Status of Women in Science at MIT," MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. X!, No. 4, March 1999. http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html
4. Charles M Vest, "Preface," "A Study on the Status of Women in Science at MIT," MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. X!, No. 4, March 1999. http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html
5. Nancy Hopkins credits Molly Potter and Lotte Bailyn with formulating the sentence that described "twenty-first-century discrimination" in the MIT Report. Nancy Hopkins, "Afterword To Chapter 8," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 191.
6. Lotte Bailyn, "Putting Gender on the Table," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010.
7. Nancy Hopkins, Lotte Bailyn, Lorna Gibson and Evelynn Hammonds, "Overview," The Status of Women Faculty at MIT, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/overview.html
8. "Overview," The Status of Women Faculty at MIT, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/overview.html
9. "Overview," The Status of Women Faculty at MIT, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/overview.html
10. "Subtle Discrimination Spurs MIT to Change," San Francisco Chronicle, March 24, 1999, as quoted in Lotte Bailyn, "Putting Gender on the Table," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010.
11. Nancy Hopkins, "Afterword To Chapter 8," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010, 189.
12. For more on Vest's actions in the wake of the MIT Report, see Lotte Bailyn, "Putting Gender on the Table," in David Kaiser ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, Cambridge: Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010.
Photo credit: “Woman's Chemical Laboratory” 1876, Photo courtesy MIT Museum; MIT CPS Photo Library source