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Vest, Birgeneau answer news critique of MIT gender study

On December 29, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled "Gender Bender" that discussed the March 1999 report on faculty gender inequities in MIT's School of Science and the appointment of a committee to explore similar issues at the University of Arizona.

The editorial said that choice rather than discrimination was the reason for women's underrepresen-tation on science faculties: "The fact is that despite the heave-ho by many schools and foundations to push more women into these fields, many just don't want to go there."

The piece also criticized MIT and other universities for using "junk science to advance group demands" and added that "before this [series of gender-inequity studies] becomes an epidemic, the schools ought to think about the consequences of politicized exercises in 'social science.'" It went on to take issue with data and conclusions in MIT's report and criticized MIT for not releasing confidential data that supported conclusions on gender discrimination.

The editorial is available online to Wall Street Journal Interactive subscribers.

In response to the editorial, President Charles M. Vest and Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau wrote a letter to the editor, which the newspaper published on January 6. That letter is reprinted below.

"First, we were told that college women just do not 'want' to do sports. Then, because of Title IX, the most significant sports event of 1999 was the US women's soccer team winning the world cup. Next, we were told that college age women just do not 'want' to study science. But now, at MIT, more than 50 percent of our undergraduate science majors are women and the only characteristic distinguishing them academically from their male fellow students is that they have a higher graduation rate. Now, the Wall Street Journal tells us that women just do not 'want' to be college science professors ("Gender Bender," editorial, December 29).

"In 1995, at the request of our senior women faculty, we set up a committee to study the status of women in science at MIT and, among other things, to determine the reasons for our failure in the School of Science at MIT to hire and promote significant numbers of women faculty. A number of the nation's finest male and female scientists agreed to serve on this committee, including a Nobel prizewinner and several members of the National Academy of Sciences.

"To suggest that these people failed in the 'scientific process' is absurd. This committee collected a large amount of information varying from quantifiable data such as square feet of office and laboratory space to more human evidence such as committee assignments and individual professional life experiences. All of these data were obtained with the promise of absolute confidentiality. It would be an explicit violation of that promise for us to release these data publicly, and we will not. However, in our view, virtually all of your readers will understand that the great scientists who collected and evaluated these data arrived at their conclusions objectively and only after extraordinarily careful deliberation.

"The remarkable national response to our release of this committee's conclusions provides dramatic proof that this committee successfully identified the root causes of a fundamental failure in American academia. Many of us are now working hard to ameliorate the problems they identified."

Sincerely yours,

Charles M. Vest, President
Robert J. Birgeneau, Dean of Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 12, 2000.

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