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Subtle discrimination spurs MIT to change

The following editorial ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 24.

But for one significant difference, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study confirming discrimination against women faculty members would probably have been ignored by college administrators across the country--like so many similar reports before it. 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 existence of the discrimination and took steps to redress it.

"I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception," MIT President Charles Vest said in comments to be published in the faculty newsletter. "True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance."

The reasonableness of Vest's conclusion is seen in differences in salary, space and resources available to men and women faculty members. Also, Vest was presented with myriad examples of subtle ways in which women were the victims of usually unconscious and unintentional slights that added up to real discrimination: A single woman faculty member might not get a raise because an administrator decided a family man needed it more; a woman who was offered a job elsewhere was allowed to leave while a male faculty member was offered a raise or promotion so that he would stay; the fact that a woman had a family was considered a strike against her in deciding tenure or promotion.

While the number of female undergraduates and graduates had grown significantly, the overall percentage of women faculty members had not changed for at least 10 years. Women were paid less, and suffered in comparison to men regarding such resources as space, teaching assignments, awards and inclusion on important committees. Under an odd salary formula, women also were required to raise twice as much in grants as men.

Since the report on the "exclusion and invisibility" of women was first issued four years ago, the school has increased salary, space and resources for women. MIT's experience is hardly unique. The study and Vest's willingness to admit discrimination--however subtle--should serve as a catalyst for colleges and universities throughout the country to seriously re-evaluate treatment of women faculty members.

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 24).

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