Presidents, chancellors, provosts and 25 women professors of nine top research universities met all day Monday at MIT in an unprecedented dialogue on equitable treatment of women faculty in science and engineering.
"Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available," the leaders said in a unanimous statement. "We recognize that barriers still exist" for women faculty.
The 184-word statement was approved by university Presidents David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology, Charles Vest of MIT, Lee Bollinger of the University of Michigan, Harold Shapiro of Princeton University, John Hennessy of Stanford University and Richard Levin of Yale University; Chancellor Robert Berdahl of the University of California at Berkeley; and Provosts Harvey Fineberg of Harvard University (representing President Neil Rudenstine) and Robert Barchi of the University of Pennsylvania (representing President Judith Rodin).
- To analyze the salaries and the proportion of other university resources provided to women faculty.
- To work toward a faculty that reflects the diversity of the student body.
- To reconvene in about a year "to share the specific initiatives we have undertaken to achieve these objectives.
- To "recognize that this challenge will require significant review of, and potentially significant change in, the procedures within each university, and within the scientific and engineering establishments as a whole."
President Vest and MIT Professors Nancy Hopkins, Lotte Bailyn and Lorna Gibson were the hosts of the Presidents Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering. Provost Robert A. Brown, Dean of Engineering Thomas K. Magnanti, Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey and Professor of Physics Lisa Randall also participated in the workshop.
The meeting was sponsored by the Ford Foundation, which has funded MIT's Gender Equity Project in recognition of the leadership of MIT women faculty and Dr. Vest, who publicly acknowledged gemder bias within universities, as described by MIT women scientists in the 1999 report, "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT."
Women professors at the meeting were delighted and startled at the unanimous agreement late in the afternoon by the leaders from the nine universities.
"I think it's extraordinary that all these people came together and agreed there was a problem," said Dr. Barbara Grosz, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard. "All these people agreed that barriers exist. They agreed that the issue wasn't simple numbers, but a whole complexity of factors. I think MIT did a fabulous thing by having this meeting."
Professor Hopkins, who initiated the study which resulted in senior women science professors getting greater recognition, equity increases in compensation and more lab space, said, "The fact that this topic was discussed today by these participants was almost a historic event, not just another meeting. I thought it was a milestone that never could happen in my lifetime.
"The women who write these reports tell the same story over and over again. When an individual person tries to raise this issue, people don't hear them. Each woman [who faces marginalization] is trapped alone, living in a state of suspended misery. There have been hundreds of reports just like MIT's, collecting dust. When the president says 'it's true,' then it's true.
"Since the study came out in 1999, we now have equity committees in all five schools at MIT, analyzing primary data. It's a different world for women here now," said Dr. Hopkins, who is the Amgen Inc. Professor of Molecular Biology. She is also co-chair of the Council on Faculty Diversity, with a seat on the Academic Council, the MIT policy-making body which includes the president, provost, chancellor, vice presidents and deans.
The workshop agenda was built around four questions:
1. What are the issues in your institutions and the successful or unsuccessful strategies you have pursued?
2. What are the systemic causes of the problems we face?
3. What new actions could each institution take?
4. What might we do collectively?
In an interview after the workshop, Dr. Vest said that in years past, "there were those of us who idealistically thought that if we built the undergraduate base [of female students], it was going to define the future" in terms of women moving up the academic ladder to professorships. "But you can see that is really not happening," he said.
Dr. Shirley Malcom, director of the Association for the Advancement of Science Education and Human Resources Programs, started the meeting with a discussion of "Stories and Statistics."
"Clearly you need both," Dr. Vest commented. "Data has to go together with individual women's experiences. Sometimes that's not easy for people to hear, and sometimes that's not believed the first time around. [At a future meeting] we will gather again to report what further things we have learned, and collectively assess 'best practices.'"
Dr. Vest said the eight hours of intense discussions and brainstorming among the 15 men and 25 women in the Faculty Club yielded a great many suggestions. "I think when we have all that material collected and written down, we will find many excellent ideas," he said.
Howard Georgi, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard, said the problems were similar everywhere. "Problems at Harvard are different, but no less severe. The marginalization is there, but the ways in which the marginalization manifests itself is different."
Looking towards the next meeting in about a year, Professor Georgi said, "If we reach agreement on this problem here, it will have an enormous impact everywhere in the country."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 31, 2001.