Numbers that couldn’t be ignored

Numbers that couldn’t be ignored

Numbers that couldn't be ignored

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The dean’s assistant ushered them into his lecture hall. Nancy had always been curious to see him; this is where the Scientific Council disputed tenure decisions. It was a stately room, with high ceilings and wood paneling. Nancy’s eyes fell on the long polished wooden table that dominated the room. She thought of the opening scene of The balcony girls, which described the encounter between the New York Times’ new Women’s Caucus and the publisher and other men of the newspaper’s masthead on a 25-foot table, a stubborn, shiny mahogany symbol of the age-old institution. 121 years that women challenged. For the book’s reporters, it had seemed overwhelming, “to go on as long as the eye could see”. This table was smaller, Nancy thought, but no less intimidating.


Someone had placed soft drinks, coffee and cookies on a credenza next to the table. Above was a large photograph, and Nancy could see that the eyes of the other women had been fixed on it. It was a photo of Robert Birgeneau, Dean of the School of Science, and the school’s five department heads. They were all men, as department heads had always been, and they were all smiling. One wore a tuxedo. They held their index fingers up to say, “We are number one! Suddenly, all Nancy could see of the room was the photograph. She felt sick. It had all been a bad idea. She remembered what Penny had said all summer: “We’re not even on their radar screen.”

The women had spent the last month meticulously preparing a proposal for the dean, asking him to form a committee to review data on space, salaries, resources and teaching assignments to ensure women were treated equally with men. The committee met with each woman in the faculty once a year to determine problems, and then recommended to the dean ways to resolve them. Only 17 of the 214 tenured professors at the School of Science were women. Sixteen of them had signed a letter – polite, conciliatory, collaborative – accompanying the proposal to the dean.

“We believe that discrimination becomes less likely when women are seen as powerful rather than weak, as valued rather than tolerated by the Institute. The crux of the matter is that equal talent and achievement are seen as unequal when viewed through the eyes of prejudice.

“There is a widespread perception among female faculty that there is ongoing, albeit largely unconscious, gender discrimination within the Institute,” they wrote. “We believe that the unequal treatment of women who come to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed, gives them less recognition when they do, and contributes so substantially to a poor quality of life that these women may in fact become a role negative role models for young women. We believe that discrimination becomes less likely when women are seen as powerful rather than weak, as valued rather than tolerated by the Institute. The core of the matter is that talent and achievement equal are seen as unequal when viewed through the eyes of prejudice If the Institute demonstrates more visibly that it views women as valuable, a more realistic view of their abilities and achievements by their administrators, colleagues and staff will eventually follow.

They had worried about every detail, met in secret and shredded early drafts, fearing they would be exposed as militants or, worse, radicals. They assumed that the Dean would have already alerted the Institute’s lawyers.

But Penny was right. When Bob Birgeneau walked into his conference room for his three o’clock that afternoon, he didn’t even know what the meeting was about. He hadn’t read the letter or the proposal the women had so carefully written, shredded, and rewritten over the past month. He had just returned from Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, where he spent most of each summer conducting neutron scattering experiments in the High Flux Beam Reactor. He had spent his early career avoiding administrative jobs, and although he enjoyed his role as dean, he preferred to be in the lab, especially at Brookhaven, where he did his own research with no postdocs or graduate students to manage. He came back recharged, as he always did. To the six women waiting for him, he showed an image of confidence and ease, a late summer tan and a broad smile.

When Professor Nancy Hopkins decided to start researching zebrafish, she requested an additional 200 square feet of office space to accommodate her aquariums. It has been repeatedly denied.


If he had to, Birgeneau would have guessed that they were there to talk about a dispute he knew well: the previous spring, Nancy had come to see him for having been withdrawn from teaching the introductory course. to biology she had developed despite her high student grades. Instead, Nancy explained how they came together over the summer, said they wanted to work with the university, and explained their idea for the women’s committee. She had typed notes, knowing she would have a hard time controlling her nerves. In bold, she typed: “Progress in universities comes when committed professors meet committed administration. The opportunity now exists at MIT to do something important about this very important problem.

The women circled the conference table, starting with Sylvia, then JoAnne. They described the arc of their careers: how optimistic they had felt coming to MIT, only to end up feeling isolated, ignored, frustrated with resources. Lisa spoke about salaries, recounting how some women realized they had only been underpaid after getting sudden raises. The women knew that by choosing a scientific career, they would have to make sacrifices in their personal lives, but they did not expect to be paid less than their male colleagues. None of the women in the room had children, Nancy told him, “They’re not even married.


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