Skip to content ↓

Policies have helped boost women faculty

Press Inquiries

Press Contact:

News Office
Phone: 617-253-2700

The proportion of women faculty members at MIT has increased dramatically over the past few years, but the Institute still needs to devote more research and attention to gender equity and diversity, faculty members said last week.

At the March 17 faculty meeting, professors Nancy Hopkins of biology and Rohan Abeyaratne of mechanical engineering presented results of MIT's efforts to boost the proportion of women on the science and engineering faculties. It was the second in a series of faculty meeting discussions about racial and gender diversity at MIT. The topic will be on the agenda again at the April 21 meeting.

In 1994, Hopkins and other tenured female professors began quantifying the relatively low numbers of women faculty in the School of Science. Their work culminated in 1999 with a report featured in the Faculty Newsletter, which resulted in national attention, "with a very profound and unexpected impact outside MIT," Hopkins said.

The report noted that as women moved up the career ladder in science at MIT, they increasingly felt "marginalized, excluded from full participation in the academic process and undervalued," she said.

As a result, MIT has taken a number of steps that have been effective in tackling the problem, Hopkins said. Among these are establishment of a Gender Equity Committee in each of the five schools at MIT; creation of the Council on Faculty Diversity to aid in recruiting women for science and engineering administration posts as well as addressing many other aspects of this issue; new family/work policies together with a tracking committee to monitor the policies' effectiveness; and oversight committees that include senior women science and engineering faculty members for new faculty member searches.

"All of these [steps] have been extremely successful," Hopkins said. She showed a "pancake graph" of the proportion of women science faculty from 1983-93--essentially flat at less than 10 percent. At the same time, the number of women students was increasing, meaning that there was a "leaky pipeline" feeding female students into the faculty ranks, she said.

However, the proportion of women faculty jumped in four of the five schools between 1993 and 2003, Hopkins noted. The numbers went from 8 to 13 percent in the School of Science; 6 to 11 percent in the School of Engineering (and 14 percent in 2004); 21 to 25 percent in the School of Architecture and Planning; and 23 to 30 percent in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. The Sloan School stayed steady at 16 percent. The percentage of women faculty overall at MIT increased from 11 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in 2003.

How do these trends project into the future? To double the percentage of MIT women faculty to 35 percent would take 31 years, and to bring it to 50 percent would take 60 years--assuming that current faculty size, number of hires per year, percentage of women hires and tenure rates remained unchanged, Hopkins said.

"Your progress can be erased unbelievably quickly," she said. "If you take your eye off [the goal] and the rate [of female hiring] slows down, it doesn't happen." In conclusion, she said, "I think there's been tremendous progress at MIT in this area, but I think there's a long way to go."

Similarly, in the School of Engineering, "we're just trying to keep this on the radar screen," said Abeyaratne, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. "I'm struck by how easy it is to take your eye off the ball."

The mechanical engineering department has created a centralized committee to oversee and be a resource to the targeted search committees. It also reviews women and minority applications so that it can share candidates with multidisciplinary qualifications across the department's searches, Abeyaratne said.

Every School of Engineering search committee must provide application material for all women and minority candidates to the dean (candidates are also reviewed by a departmental faculty search committee which includes a woman and an underrepresented minority faculty member or, if the committee lacks a woman or underrepresented minority faculty member, by a school-based Minority Faculty Recruitment and Retention Committee).

Hopkins noted that in the School of Science, the tenure rate for women is the same as for men. "That's not the problem--it's in actually getting them here."

" This issue of the pipeline is such a huge one," Professor Hazel Sive commented when the floor was opened for questions. Women graduate students and postdocs who might otherwise be on a tenure track often leave the field to have children, she noted. "The issue is a biological one, not just a societal one ... It comes back to many aspects of men and women being different from one another," Sive said.

MIT has already taken some steps to try to help women in this situation, Provost Robert A. Brown said. The Institute's child care system (the Technology Children's Centers) will expand to include a new facility in the Stata Center opening in June. MIT also offers scholarships to graduate students to help pay for day care and has amended its maternity leave policy to cover graduate students, he said.

Several faculty members commented that increasing racial diversity on the faculty is just as important but perhaps even more difficult. "The pipeline issues in other aspects of diversity are so much more challenging," said Dean of Engineering Thomas Magnanti, noting that only 1 percent to 1.5 percent of all Ph.D. degrees granted each year in the United States are awarded to African-Americans.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 31, 2004.

Related Topics

More MIT News