Critic Challenges MIT Women Report

Last March, a well-publicized report concluded that women faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) get disproportionately lower salaries and less lab space than their male colleagues (Science, 26 March 1999, p. 1992, and 12 November 1999, p. 1272). Now, the report is provoking a backlash even as other universities take steps to emulate MIT and bring gender equity to their faculties.

Last month, psychologist Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, posted a critique on the Web that labels the MIT effort "a political manifesto masquerading as science." In her analysis, prepared for the conservative Independent Women's Forum (IWF) of Arlington, Virginia, Kleinfeld says that MIT has released no data--other than percentages of each sex in the School of Science--to back up its conclusion that women scientists were maltreated. Kleinfeld asserts that women from the School of Science acted as their own "judge and jury," because they made up two-thirds of the MIT panel that did the study. And she claims the gender disparity in MIT's science faculty could be explained by other factors, such as research suggesting that talented women are less likely to be interested in science as a career, and that men outnumber women in the top percentile of tests for math ability. The Wall Street Journal lauded the IWF analysis in a 29 December editorial, saying that "to gussy up ... demands as objective science and then hide the data is a poor lesson for the students."

MIT School of Science dean Robert Birgeneau dismisses the criticisms as "ridiculous." MIT could not allow public access to the data on which the report was based because "you have to promise confidentiality to get any results," he says. And to doubt the objectivity of the committee--which counted several men, including physicist Jerome Friedman--"is insulting."

The criticisms are unlikely to dampen other universities' enthusiasm for embracing the MIT report: A swarm of schools have been setting up their own "gender equity" projects, including Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, and the San Francisco and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California.

Posted in Scientific Community