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The Status of Women in Science and Engineering at MIT

03/28/2011 9:00 AM Kresge
Nancy Hopkins, Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology

Description: It's difficult to imagine that at one point in her career, National Academy of Science member Nancy Hopkins thought to quit. In her talk, she relates the historical challenges facing women in science and engineering at MIT, the university's responses to these problems, and how in the end Hopkins avoided becoming a poster child of the 'leaky pipeline' -- a term of art for the high rate of attrition among talented women in engineering and science academia.

Hopkins weaves together a personal tale with the larger story of gender discrimination in U.S. academia. She first captures a century of women at MIT, from the handful of female admissions starting in the late 19th century, to the current numbers: 45% of all undergraduates, 29% of graduate students and 17% of the faculty. However, there were no women science or engineering faculty in the first 100 years. During this period, the exclusion of top"notch women researchers from major academic posts was common, says Hopkins, a reflection of the fact that "societal beliefs can overpower merit." A major turning point arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights and women's movements flung open workplace doors to women.

But Hopkins notes that even after passage of laws against overt job discrimination, obstacles emerged to the advancement of women scientists and engineers, "unanticipated and largely invisiblealmost as effective at excluding women as the fact they couldn't get a job at all." There was sexual harassment, which "made it impossible for women to be equal in the workplace." Hopkins recalls in her undergraduate days grossly inappropriate behavior toward her by a Nobel Prize"winning biologist in a Harvard lab, but "didn't grasp until years later that a man who treats a student that way may not be genuinely interested in her lab notes." Mentors who could smooth the way to the next career step were few and far between for women students and young faculty. And unlike men, women have to choose between children or career. Hopkins says "women in my generation instinctively never talked about pregnancy or children at workYou wanted to make sure people knew you wanted to be a nun of science, and in fact personally, I was." Hopkins cites as well "unconscious gender bias," where women's research appeared to colleagues of both genders less valuable than identical research by a man, and accompanying marginalization in university departments. Up against these problems, who could blame women for departing their professions, asks Hopkins.

At MIT, serious relief arrived in 1994, after Hopkins, demoralized after trying in vain to obtain more lab space for her zebrafish experiments, found similarly unhappy women colleagues who banded together to press for institutional solutions. Hopkins literally went about measuring lab space and provided hard data about gender bias to then MIT President Charles Vest, as evidence that women had less space available to conduct their research. (This "tape measure" turning point has earned Hopkins an unintended place in MIT history, while the tape measure itself is on display at the MIT Museum.)

In stages, over the subsequent years, MIT began intensively recruiting women scientists and engineers for its faculty; creating new family leave policies; and placing women in top administrative roles, among a number of remedies. 19% of science faculty are now women, and surveys show a much higher level of satisfaction among this group. But Hopkins says the job is not yet finished: Women at MIT, from students to faculty, report "the perception that when women advance, it is due to the lowering of standards." The leaky pipeline won't be fixed until "this insidious belief that women are less good than men" vanishes within MIT and society at large.

About the Speaker(s): Nancy Hopkins earned widespread recognition for cloning vertebrate developmental genes. Using a technique called insertional mutagenesis -- designed for such invertebrate animals as the fruit fly -- Hopkins's laboratory has cloned hundreds of genes that play a role in creating a viable fish embryo.

Hopkins' research earned her 1998 election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1999 election to the Institute of Medicine and 2004 election to the National Academy of Sciences. She speaks frequently about gender equity issues in science.

Hopkins obtained a B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1964 and a Ph.D. from the department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Harvard University in 1971.

Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom

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