MIT Study Reveals Pervasive Sex Discrimination

A five-year study reveals that the female faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Science face “pervasive, if unintentional” sex discrimination.

The report identified sex discrimination in hiring, in the allocation of laboratory space and research money, in the granting of awards and promotions, and in the membership of important committees. Discrimination was felt the strongest among senior-level women faculty, who were most likely to feel excluded and unappreciated my their peers and superiors.

As can be seen in the numbers below, the representation of women in the highest-ranking scholarly positions remains extremely poor, despite increases in the number of female undergraduate students.

Men Women

School of Science Faculty: 92% 8%

Biology undergraduates 142 147

Biology faculty 42 7

Math undergraduates 53 123

Math faculty 47 1

Physics professor and report contributor Jacqueline Hewitt noted that some types of discrimination experienced by female faculty were difficult to document. Hewitt explained, “These things, like how much of a voice you have in the decision-making process, are not so easily quantified.”

The impetus for the discrimination study was brought in 1994 by three women faculty members who had shared their experiences with discrimination in discussions. The women made a proposal on how women’s status could be improved at M.I.T. and submitted that plan to Dean Robert J. Birgen, who approved it. For the next five years, the women collected the data that appears in the current report.

The full report was published on the Web last Friday along with comments prepared by M.I.T. President Charles M. Vest. Female faculty members who were involved in the study praised Vest and other school officials for being forthcoming about M.I.T.’s problems with sex discrimination. Molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins, who helped to initiate the discrimination study, said that M.I.T. comments “are the most forward-looking statements on gender discrimination that I’ve read by a high-ranking administrator in one of these elite institutions in the 25 years I’ve been a faculty member.”

The report concluded with several recommendations to help raise the status of women faculty as M.I.T. Study authors recommended that administrators who are found to knowingly discriminate against women be fired, and that “equity data” be gathered annually to measure the school’s progress.

In a meeting Monday, M.I.T. officials and faculty members also urged the expansion of the report to other schools within the M.I.T. system. “The challenge now,” said Hopkins, “is what can you do so that this wonderful thing that has happened can become automatic and institutionalized?”


MIT Report and New York Times - March 23, 1999

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