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Minority women faculty conferees discuss professional obstacles

Associate Professor Evelynn Hammonds speaking at the MIT meeting of the National Initiative on Minority Women Faculty.
Associate Professor Evelynn Hammonds speaking at the MIT meeting of the National Initiative on Minority Women Faculty.
Photo / Laura Wulf

Minority women science and engineering faculty from around the country gathered at MIT on Jan. 18-19 to explore common solutions to a problem many confront alone: despite remarkable individual and professional achievements, they continue to face daunting career barriers inside the academy.

The two-day conference, hosted by the Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine at MIT, formed part of a National Initiative on Minority Women Faculty. The director of the center is Evelynn M. Hammonds, associate professor of the history of science, who served as the event's co-facilitator with Angela B. Ginoria, associate professor of women's studies and psychology at the University of Washington.

In opening remarks, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay, a professor of urban planning, expressed his hope for "the kind of leadership that would voice how to address issues and aspirations of young women of color."

Clay charged the women faculty at the National Initiative on Minority Women Faculty (NIMWF) conference to discern the "points of leverage that would make some progress, a technology for institutional change that will address diversity." He also reminded them of their role as mentors and guides for the next generations of students.

"Young people look to us for advice and help. We have to work to make institutions more receptive and we have to work on our own younger brothers and sisters so that when the opportunities are available they will seize them--and be confident that there are those of us who will help them along the path," Clay said.

Provost Robert A. Brown said he hoped for a "national impact" from the conference in its study of "gender and race, of what the pipeline issues are, and of tools for enhancing the diversity in the community. MIT is an environment in which we can make progress."

Hammonds said that goals after the "very successful" conference include:
Creating a national network of minority women scientists and engineers including a web site.
Publishing a report on the status of minority women scientists and engineers in the academy, including detailed statistical information.
Wide dissemination of information about outstanding minority women scientists and engineers.
Establishing closer ties with professional scientific and engineering organizations to support existing efforts to increase the numbers of minority women in them.

"It was so heartening to hear both about their many scientific and technical accomplishments, and their deep desire to change the academy so the next generation of minority women in science and engineering would not have to face the same issues of isolation and marginalization they had faced," Hammonds said.

"We may look back on this meeting as a critical turning point in our progress to advance the participation of minorities--both women and men--in science and engineering at MIT," said Nancy Hopkins, the Amgen Professor of Biology. Hopkins was an author of a 1999 report, "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT."

"As a result of the widespread attention the women in science report received, MIT obtained funding to establish a gender equity project here at the Institute to analyze the status of women throughout the Institute," Hammonds said.

The main question prompting the NIMWF conference was how race or ethnicity had shaped the careers of minority women in science and engineering. Another goal was to explore institutional arrangements that had helped or hindered their work and professional development in the academy, Hammonds said.

"In conducting these analyses, we wanted to include the perspective of minority women, especially in science and engineering. We thought that the best way to understand the status of minority women in science and engineering would be to bring a group of leading tenured minority women scientists and engineers to MIT to talk with women on our faculty involved in the gender equity project," Hammonds said. There are now only four tenured minority women at MIT out of a full-time faculty of approximately 950, she said later.

The organizational roots for the conference reach back more than 25 years. "We modeled the meeting on the first such gathering of minority women scientists, which was convened by the AAAS in 1976 and chaired by the African-American biologist, Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb," Hammonds said. "The proceedings of that conference were published by the AAAS as 'The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science,'" which delineated the twin burdens of racism and sexism faced by minority women. "It was for many years the only report that discussed the status of minority women in science and engineering in the United States."

Hammonds and other participants noted some surprises as they heard minority women discuss their professional lives. "I was surprised that even in 2002, these women had so few opportunities in their professional careers to talk and network with other minority women scientists and engineers. Another surprise was that despite the diversity of the participants, these Asian-American, Native American, African-American and Hispanic women found many commonalities in their experiences," she said.

"I think all the participants were surprised by the presentations on where minority women scientists and engineers stand in the academy. The data highlighted how shockingly few women there are at all ranks. For example, in the top 50 chemistry departments in the United States, among female faculty only one full professor is black, five are Hispanic, 11 are Asian-American and one is Native American," Hammonds said.

Hopkins, too, was struck by the "eye-opening data" in Nelson's research. "It was galvanizing. Who could see those numbers and not say that we as faculty have failed--failed our students, our institution, and most of all, failed our nation?" she said.

The Ford Foundation contributed funds to establish the NIMWF in MIT's Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 30, 2002.

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