Women in Biology
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The MIT report and Larry Summers


Two high-profile news stories about women. In the first, women faculty at MIT banded together and won an investigation, which showed that yes, they were NOT treated equally. This MIT report was followed by other universities finding the same thing. In the second, the President of Harvard Larry Summers puts foot in mouth regarding the natural aptitude of women for science.
Section 1: The MIT report, and other universities investigate

The MIT Report (1999)

offered convincing evidence for subtle and pervasive gender discrimination against women faculty at MIT. The Institute has admitted the problems (which undoubtedly affect many other institutions) and has taken steps to remedy them. This report got national press and spawned new discussion of the issue, as you can see below. A must read for anyone interested in gender equity in science.
  • A study on women faculty at MIT provides the actual report (although most of the confidential data are absent). Also available in .pdf format.
  • You can read more about the report in this Chronicle of Higher Education article, which describes what's missing in the public version, or in this New York Times article, which includes interviews. This article from Nature (may require a subscription) provides more data and background.
  • But it's not over yet. To find out what happened next, see this essay by one of the women who initiated the study.
  • Read an online discussion on the Chronicle of Higher Education website (6/99). Lots of anecdotes about women facing gender bias in academe--and some women received threats after participating.
  • Creating fairness for women scientists: lessons from MIT from the Beagle starts with the MIT report and goes on to analyze sources of perceptual gender bias and suggest strategies for dealing with it.
  • After the MIT report, an article from from The Chronicle (12/99), describes the effects of MIT's study on the women involved and women at other institutions.
  • It's lonely at the top, an article from Science's Nextwave site, discusses the ongoing efforts of women faculty at MIT and neighboring Harvard to improve things.
  • Women and tenure at MIT discusses many aspects of faculty life and persistent underrepresentation of women at higher levels
  • The report isn't without criticsm.
    • This article introduces one of them, who dismisses the results--mainly because MIT chose not to publish the data! (She also thinks that if you ask for a larger salary, you'll get it. Not in my experience.)
    • A conservative anti-feminist organization argues that the MIT women actually aren't as good as the men, so they deserve less money. (PDF file here). Of course, if you are given fewer resources, you produce fewer papers, but they didn't address this fundamental issue of causality. This is the same organization that previously suggested that the MIT report lied about the data for internal political reasons. As part of their mission statement, this group also "oppose[s] court imposition of what the democratic process rejects." By their logic, the southern USA should still be racially segregated.
    • A discussion of the IWF article is on The Chronicle web site.
    • The e-zine Salon also is critical in an article called Sex and Science But they got a lot of letters with the opposite viewpoint!
  • More from MIT:a report on women faculty in engineering addresses many of the issues relevant to women faculty in other scientific and technical disciplines.
2006 update from MIT MIT responded to the original report with an aggressive program to recruit and retain women, other universities investigated their campuses, and university presidents pledged to make it better. However, as time went by, attention dropped, and now, it seems, there has been some backsliding.

Other universities have also investigated:

  • All in one place: A collection of all the Gender faculty studies at research 1 universities
  • The University of Illinois reports that " the status of faculty women at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999 is not good and is in need of improvement. The solution in our minds is a very aggressive hiring policy targeted at increasing the number of faculty women at all ranks and across all colleges. But an aggressive hiring strategy will not succeed unless we can demonstrate to potential recruits that the women at the UIUC face a nondiscriminatory employment situation, a supportive climate, and a gender-equitable salary policy. This report suggests otherwise. "
  • Stanford University made a report in 1998 on the same subject: "We need to assess why Stanford, while making some small growth in overall numbers, is hiring and promoting proportionately so few of these growing pools of women scholars."
  • University of Colorado, Boulder states "Not only are women being paid substantially less than men on average at CU-Boulder, but the average salary for women relative to male employees is even below the national average of 74%. "
  • Johns Hopkins University reports that "When deans, directors, and, in some cases, key department chairs, have clearly stated that achieving gender equity is an important priority, it has sent a clear signal to faculty of both sexes that it is legitimate to invest time and energy in this effort."
  • University of Southern California white paper on gender equity. USC set up a WISE program (women in science and engineering) that fosters women faculty interactions and provides support for women faculty and their staffs. USC has increased the fraction of WISE women faculty considerably since this program began.
  • University of New Hampshire assembled a comprehensive report that also examined why women leave the faculty: "push" factors related to unsatisfactory work conditions were the primary reason for resignation for almost all of the women. "Pull" factors, tempting or necessary alternatives to their positions such as other jobs or family responsibilities, were important in some women's decisions to leave. However, alternatives were usually sought or considered only after the "push" factors of negative work environments became intolerable.
  • Loss of diversity at Ivy schools (PDF)
  • article about gender equity concerns at U Wisconsin Med School
  • Boston Globe article describes efforts to boost women at U Wisconsin
  • 9 universities meet to discuss women science faculty. "Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available," the leaders said in a unanimous statement. "We recognize that barriers still exist" for women faculty (31 Jan 2001). Another report about this meeting is on Women's E-news
  • THey met again in 2005...now that MIT has a woman president!
  • Sometimes it just doesn't work out. A UWashington lawsuit started when 5 five female faculty members claimed academic and pay discrimination, and now is a class-action suit that could affect over 1000 women hired in the late '90s. Only 25% of tenure track faculty there are women.
  • Enhancing Campus Climate for Academic Excellence: The Millenium Project at the University of Arizona aims to to "enhance the development of an institutional culture at the University of Arizona that fosters productivity, creativity and academic excellence." You can read the executive summary (.pdf) or the whole report on line.
  • Princeton University's task force has reported on women in science. Bottom line: as at other institutions, there's been progress but there is more to do. " In surveys, considerably fewer women than men reported a sense of collegiality, inclusion and job satisfaction. Female assistant professors were also less likely than males to report being mentored.... Twenty-four percent of women surveyed reported that their colleagues "occasionally" or "frequently" engage in unprofessional behavior on gender-related matters."
  • University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) report on the Climate for Faculty (Feb. 2003). From the summary: The academic medical workplace is a particularly difficult one for women. It has taken more than 15 years for the proportion of women faculty who are professors to increase one percent.
Section II: The Larry Summer affair, in which a president of Harvard said women are not biologically suited to science
The Summers Affair, or, the former president of Harvard causes a furore. He rather misses the point while inserting foot in mouth. Some women may not be as good as some men, but (1) there is no correlation between child play with dolls or trucks and scientific accomplishment as an adult; (2) if the failure to have a good representation of women is because they aren't as willing or able as men, why does female representation in science vary so much in different countries? That is, Hungary has 50% women physicists. Are they evolving faster there? (3) And shouldn't able women have just as much chance as able men, even if there aren't as many of them? The real kicker in his comments was that he essentially ignored years of work on this subject and spoke down to an audience that takes this subject seriously.