UPDATED, later this morning
The New York Times reports on M.I.T.’s efforts to recruit, retain, and promote women faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering into leadership positions in the wake of its landmark study in 1999 revealing pervasive sex discrimination. It’s good news–but M.I.T. is about where most American unis were about 20 years ago in their conclusions about the progress of women and the “new” issues that their success so far. From the Times summary of the 2011 report:
In what the new study calls “stunning” progress, the number of female faculty members has nearly doubled in the School of Science since 1999 and in the School of Engineering since its original study was completed in 2002. More women are in critical decision-making positions at M.I.T. — there is a female president, and women who are deans and department heads. Inequities in salaries, resources, lab space and teaching loads have largely been eliminated.
“I thought things might get better, I thought people had good will, but I never dreamed we’d make this much progress in 10 years,” said Lorna J. Gibson, who led the Engineering School study.
Some of the problems noted in the report are brought on by progress: the university now struggles to accommodate two-career couples; a decade ago, women with tenure tended to be married only to their careers.
But the primary issue in the report is the perception that correcting bias means lowering standards for women. In fact, administrators say they have increased the number of women by broadening their searches. No one is hired without what Marc A. Kastner, the dean of the School of Science, called “off-scale” recommendations from at least 15 scholars outside M.I.T.
Among women on the science and engineering faculties, there are more than two dozen members of the National Academy of Sciences; four winners of the National Medal of Science; the recipient of the top international award in computer science; and the winners of a host of other fellowships and prizes.
“No one is getting tenure for diversity reasons, because the women themselves feel so strongly that the standards have to be maintained,” Professor Kastner said.
For many students and faculty–women included!–the mere presence of women and/or nonwhite scholars on a faculty in any meager number is prima facie evidence that “standards” are slipping.
An array of prizes and professional accolades among female professors has provided a powerful rebuttal to critics who suggested after the earlier report that women simply lacked the aptitude for science — most infamously, Lawrence H. Summers, whose remarks set off his downfall as the president of Harvard.
But with the emphasis on eliminating bias, women now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.
Maybe someone should clue in the male students: U haz coeducation now? Like, since 1870, apparently, and in more than token numbers since 1964, nearly fifty years ago. I mean, maybe it would have been news a century ago to have “girl scholars” in the lab, but srsly, boys? Get a grip and grow the frack up. Women are nearly half the undergraduate student body and nearly 1/3 of the graduate students at M.I.T. Speaking of “coeducation:” I used to work with a man (surprisingly a guy about my age at the beginning of his career, not an older man at all) who persisted in calling our women students at that university “co-eds.” Now, this is a university that had been “co-ed” since the 1920s and had more women than men students by that time, so it seemed more than a little stupid to call women “co-eds” in the 1990s.
It’s the persistence of this attitude–that women are the interlopers into the boys’ club–that continues to convince everyone that women students and faculty are the exception rather than the rule. (And we know that in the case of both undergraduate and graduate students nationwide in the U.S., women students are the majority!) How else to explain this comment from the President of M.I.T. at the time the original report was issued (again, from the Times story)? “‘I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,’ the university’s president, Charles M. Vest, wrote in the 1999 report. “’True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.’” Why would anyone “believe” that unless women’s “perceptions” were always doubted or discounted? How could this be “true” in any part unless women’s experiences and women’s work always means less and counts for less?
Back to the Times story on the 2011 report:
Yet now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.
As Professor [Hazel L.] Sive said, “Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.”
This is something I’ve long wondered about–to what extent do “work/life” balance discussions perpetuate the notion that “balance” is women’s work? I am happy to talk about my personal and professional life choices with students who ask, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with public fora like these in “co-ed” environments that feature only women faculty and are aimed at mostly women students. It seems like these discussions end up exoticizing faculty women like an alien species.
What do you think?
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