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MIT Issues Mea Culpa on Sex Bias

23 March 1999 7:00 pm
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has publicly admitted that it has sinned--if only inadvertently--against women scientists. A report from an MIT faculty committee posted on the university's web site this week concludes that MIT's School of Science has provided a better work environment for male faculty than for women.

The report was produced by a nine-faculty-member committee, set up by science dean Robert Birgeneau in 1994, after molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins and two other tenured women science faculty members had polled their colleagues and found that women were getting less money, office space, and access to research resources and positions carrying greater responsibility. The committee documented numerous instances of gender bias in a series of internal reports withheld from the public. But a summary of its final report, completed 2 years ago, was put online this week as an "educational" process for the whole university, says Birgeneau.

Cleansed of telling detail, the report offers only vague observations and conclusions. For example, it states that discrimination in this "post-Civil-Rights era" doesn't take obvious forms, but "consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes" that have concrete penalties such as lower salaries for women as well as "subtle differences in ... treatment."

University officials swiftly endorsed the report. In an accompanying statement, MIT president Charles M. Vest said, "I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. ... but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance." Birgeneau told ScienceNOW that all the inequities related to matters such as salaries and lab space have been rectified in the past few years. In addition, he says, school officials are putting more energy into recruiting women science faculty, who have edged up from 22 of 274 tenured and nontenured positions in 1994 to 31 of 265 this year. The university administration is considering how to generalize its new insights campuswide.

Birgeneau says he hopes other schools will learn from the MIT experience. But Hopkins is dubious. "This problem is the same at all schools that are elite," she contends. But "these other universities ... are just in denial."

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