The numbers that couldn’t be ignored

Penny Chisholm picked up Nancy Hopkins within the most cancers heart an hour earlier than their appointment with the dean on August 11, 1994. They walked throughout the road to gather Lisa Steiner and Mary-Lou Pardue within the biology division, then to the primary campus to select up JoAnne Stubbe and Sylvia Ceyer. The six MIT professors from the Faculty of Science walked as a band throughout the shady expanse of Eastman Courtroom, imagining that everybody have to be watching them. It was ridiculous, Penny thought: right here she was, a full professor, feeling as unsure as a freshman on her first day of sophistication.

They pulled open the heavy doorways to Constructing 6 and started strolling down the lengthy, cool hall. On a summer season day, with out the same old crush of scholars, they might hear their steps echo in opposition to the marble flooring and the tall, painted cinder-block partitions. Nobody mentioned something.

The dean’s assistant confirmed them into his convention room. Nancy had at all times been curious to see it; this was the place the Science Council argued over tenure choices. It was a stately room, with excessive ceilings and wooden paneling. Nancy’s eyes went to the lengthy polished-wood desk that dominated the room. She considered the opening scene of The Women within the Balcony, which described when the newly shaped Ladies’s Caucus of the New York Timesmet with the writer and different males of the newspaper’s masthead throughout a 25-foot desk, an stubborn, gleaming mahogany image of the 121-year-old establishment the ladies had been difficult. To the journalists within the ebook, it had appeared overpowering, “to go on so long as the attention might see.” This desk was smaller, Nancy thought, however no much less daunting.

Somebody had set out smooth drinks, espresso, and cookies on a credenza subsequent to the desk. Above it was a big {photograph}, and Nancy might see that the opposite ladies’s eyes had mounted on that. It was an image of Robert Birgeneau, dean of the Faculty of Science, and the varsity’s 5 division heads. They had been all males, as division heads had at all times been, and all grinning. One was carrying a tuxedo. They had been holding their forefingers aloft to say, “We’re primary!” Instantly all Nancy might see of the room was the {photograph}. She felt sick. This had all been a foul thought. She remembered what Penny had mentioned all summer season: “We’re not even on their radar display.”


The ladies had spent the previous month meticulously making ready a proposal for the dean, asking him to type a committee to look at the information on area, salaries, assets, and instructing assignments to guarantee that ladies had been being handled pretty in contrast with males. The committee would meet with every girl on the college annually to find out any issues, after which suggest methods the dean might resolve them. Solely 17 of the Faculty of Science’s 214 tenured school had been ladies. Sixteen of them had signed a letter—well mannered, conciliatory, collaborative in tone—accompanying the proposal to the dean.

“We consider that discrimination turns into much less possible when ladies are considered as highly effective, fairly than weak, as valued, fairly than tolerated by the Institute. The guts of the issue is that equal expertise and accomplishment are considered as unequal when seen via the eyes of prejudice.”

“There’s a widespread notion amongst ladies school that there’s constant, although largely unconscious, gender discrimination inside the Institute,” they wrote. “We consider that unequal therapy of girls who come to MIT makes it tougher for them to succeed, causes them to be accorded much less recognition after they do, and contributes so considerably to a poor high quality of life that these ladies can truly turn out to be adverse function fashions for young women. We consider that discrimination turns into much less possible when ladies are considered as highly effective, fairly than weak, as valued, fairly than tolerated by the Institute. The guts of the issue is that equal expertise and accomplishment are considered as unequal when seen via the eyes of prejudice. If the Institute extra visibly demonstrates that it views ladies as useful, a extra life like view of their potential and accomplishments by their directors, colleagues, and workers will finally comply with.”

That they had fearful over each element, met in secret, and shredded early drafts, scared of being came upon as activists or, worse, radicals. They assumed the dean would have already alerted the Institute’s attorneys. 

However Penny was proper. When Bob Birgeneau walked into his convention room for his three o’clock that afternoon, he didn’t even know what the assembly was about. He hadn’t learn the letter or the proposal the ladies had so rigorously written, shredded, and rewritten over the earlier month. He was simply again from Brookhaven Nationwide Lab, on Lengthy Island, the place he spent the higher a part of each summer season operating experiments on neutron scattering within the Excessive Flux Beam Reactor. He had spent his early profession avoiding administrative jobs, and whereas he appreciated his function as dean, he most popular being within the lab, particularly at Brookhaven, the place he did his personal analysis with out postdocs or graduate college students to handle. He had returned recharged, as he at all times did. To the six ladies who sat ready for him, he confirmed an image of confidence and ease, a late-summer tan, and a broad smile.

A view of Hopkins lab space showing fish tanks on every surface.
When Professor Nancy Hopkins determined to start analysis on zebrafish, she requested an extra 200 sq. ft of workplace area to accommodate her fish tanks. She was repeatedly denied.
MIT MUSEUM

If he needed to, Birgeneau would have guessed they had been there to speak a few dispute he knew effectively: the earlier spring, Nancy had come to see him about having been faraway from instructing the introductory biology course she’d developed, regardless of having earned excessive scores from college students. As an alternative, Nancy defined how they’d come collectively over the summer season, mentioned that they wished to work with the college, and defined their thought for the ladies’s committee. She had typed out notes, understanding she’d have bother maintaining her nerves in test. In daring she’d typed: “Progress at universities comes when dedicated school meet up with a dedicated administration. Alternative exists now at MIT to do one thing vital about this crucial downside.”

The ladies went across the convention desk, beginning with Sylvia, then JoAnne. They described the arc of their careers: how optimistic they’d felt coming to MIT, solely to finish up feeling remoted, ignored, annoyed over assets. Lisa talked about salaries, relating how some ladies realized they’d been underpaid solely after they bought sudden raises. The ladies had identified after they selected careers in science that they must make sacrifices of their private lives, however they’d not anticipated to be paid lower than their male colleagues. Not one of the ladies within the room had kids, Nancy instructed him: “They aren’t even married.”

“My private life doesn’t exist,” Sylvia mentioned. “I can’t even purchase a home.”

At this the dean jumped in—Nancy thought he may lunge throughout the desk. “Why didn’t you come and see me about that?” Male school members had been getting loans to purchase properties for years; not one of the ladies within the room had realized they might ask. A complete world existed for males that the ladies had been solely now glimpsing.

Birgeneau had skilled just a few eureka moments in his 30-year profession, occasions when he was struggling to make sense of a set of info that didn’t appear to suit collectively after which instantly, like a thunderclap, all the pieces moved into place to disclose a basic fact, a shift within the climate. He nonetheless vividly remembered the time in 1978 when he’d been engaged on an issue in regards to the phases of smectic crystals—an unsolved query first raised by French physicists a century earlier. He was driving south alongside the Connecticut Turnpike when the reply struck him, with such power that he pulled off the freeway to discover a pay cellphone and name his collaborator: “I’ve bought it!”

Listening to the ladies now, one after the opposite, Birgeneau felt the identical sudden readability, a sense so sturdy he later described it as a spiritual expertise.

As dean of science, it was his job to know all the college members and the challenges they confronted, so the ladies and even a few of their tales weren’t unfamiliar to him. Had any of them come to him individually, as Nancy had within the spring in regards to the biology course, he would have defined their complaints because the idiosyncrasies of a division, a state of affairs, a relationship, a price range dispute, or inside politics. Now he had six ladies in entrance of him, and a letter with 16 signatures. Seeing the ladies all collectively and listening to the uniform unhappiness of their tales, he instantly realized, We’ve bought a giant downside. This wasn’t nearly lab area or a course—it was a sample. An issue within the system. These ladies weren’t tough. He was struck by how a lot they’d managed to perform regardless of the atmosphere they’d been working in. He hadn’t realized how few of them had kids. Few males had made that private sacrifice, he thought—he himself was the daddy of 4.

Vest appreciated to hunt a number of opinions earlier than he made choices, which might generally vex his lieutenants. However on this case, he didn’t hesitate. He instructed Birgeneau to go forward. If there have been inequities, MIT wanted to repair them.

Birgeneau requested the ladies if it was all proper for him to talk now. He instructed them that when Nancy had come to him the earlier 12 months, he hadn’t identified her, so he couldn’t consider what she was saying. He didn’t assume it was discrimination, however he’d requested his daughters and his spouse, a social employee, and so they had began him considering. And now he understood what they had been saying, what Nancy had mentioned: ladies had been—right here he borrowed the phrase Sylvia had used earlier within the assembly—“marginalized.”

Nancy requested if he thought their committee would work. Birgeneau was uncertain. What they had been feeling was disrespect, and that was exhausting to quantify. He instructed the ladies he thought the problem could be tangled within the aggressive, male-dominated tradition of MIT, and no committee might repair that. However he instructed them they might attempt. He instructed they hold it small—three folks—however agreed after they requested for 4 or 5. He instructed them to satisfy along with his assistant to attract up a cost outlining the committee’s function—that was customary observe for establishing any new committee, like setting a speculation. His assistant can be again from trip in two weeks.

“Our assembly with the dean went extraordinarily effectively,” Nancy wrote the opposite ladies. “In reality it’s exhausting to see the way it might have gone higher. He was receptive, involved, and ready.”


Her jubilation was short-lived. Two weeks later, Birgeneau appeared within the doorway of Nancy’s workplace within the most cancers heart. It was on the different finish of campus from his personal. He laughed awkwardly. “I’m misplaced.”

She invited him in.

“There’s a snag.”

“I’m being fired?” Nancy was nonetheless exulting from the assembly, and half joking, although it occurred to her that perhaps she shouldn’t be.

Birgeneau had instructed the Science Council—which included the division heads and the top of the most cancers heart—in regards to the proposal for the ladies’s committee, and a few division heads had been aggravated. They thought there have been too many committees already, which Birgeneau thought was a priority he might work round. Additionally they didn’t wish to be second-guessed. He was shocked at how vehemently they’d resisted the thought.

“So what?” Nancy mentioned. 

“They’ll resign.” 

“Good.”

Birgeneau laughed. “You’ve most likely observed that deans don’t have a lot energy.” It was true: the facility within the Faculty of Science had at all times been with the division chairmen, as a result of they managed instructing assignments and assets resembling area and inside grants. Birgeneau instructed Nancy he had chosen sturdy chairmen on objective. “Weak ones are boring. I like sturdy folks—that’s why I such as you.” However he needed to rule by consensus.

The chairmen had reacted the identical means Birgeneau himself had when Nancy instructed him her downside was “discrimination.” There have been so few ladies in every division that they couldn’t see any sample. They might clarify all the explanations this girl or that girl was sad; so far as they might see, her difficulties had been tied up with particular person circumstances that had nothing to do along with her being a girl. And MIT was identical to all different elite universities in having so few ladies on its science school. All however three of the highest 10 math departments in the complete nation had not a single girl. As for the biology division, Harvard was worse.

A few the chairmen wished to take a seat in when the committee’s cost was drawn up. Birgeneau instructed Nancy he would allow them to; it might assist get them on board.

Nancy requested if the ladies ought to go to the president as a substitute—perhaps with Birgeneau. Birgeneau mentioned no. “In universities issues don’t work from the highest down. Your motion is working as a result of it’s grassroots. It’s a must to get the chairs in your aspect.”

“Will it work?” 

“I believe so.”

“Are you able to promise?”

“Promise?” Birgeneau laughed once more.


Birgeneau had already gone to see President Vest. Chuck, as he was identified, was a tall and rangy West Virginian, soft-spoken and self-effacing. His father had been a celebrated professor at West Virginia College in Morgantown, and his personal classmates recalled him as the neatest child in each class, however his colleagues appreciated that he by no means wanted to be the neatest man within the room. He was heat and unpretentious and nonetheless considered himself as a small-town boy with small-town values. He’d arrived as president 4 years earlier from the College of Michigan, the place he’d been ever since ending faculty in his hometown, and risen quickly from professor via a succession of high-ranking posts. He had met with a cool reception at MIT; the college most popular presidents who had risen via its personal ranks, and Vest had the extra stigma of being the second selection, having taken the job after Phil Sharp declined it. Vest confronted any skepticism head-on, joking that he’d gotten two letters from MIT in his life: one rejecting his software for assistant professor, the opposite hiring him to be president. His kidding apart, many school members sniped that MIT had employed a president who couldn’t get tenure there.

Metal retractable measuring tape with a yellow label reading, "HOPKINS"
Hopkins used this tape measure to check the dimensions of her analysis area with that of her male colleagues–and began a motion that might remodel the
expertise of feminine scientists at MIT and past.
MIT MUSEUM

Vest had confirmed himself a prolific cash raiser amongst non-public donors and in Washington, the place he noticed it as his duty to elucidate the significance of analysis universities for American innovation within the put up–Chilly Conflict period. He had opened MIT’s first workplace within the nation’s capital. And he had lately succeeded in warding off the federal authorities’s try to power universities to present extra monetary assist primarily based on benefit fairly than want, a battle the Ivies had declined to tackle.

Standing up for needy college students had made Chuck a hero to many school members, together with Birgeneau, who had been among the many early doubters. He had begun searching for Chuck’s recommendation usually. Now, Birgeneau instructed Vest that he thought the ladies had a good suggestion to look into salaries and different assets, however the division heads had been pushing again.

Vest appreciated to hunt a number of opinions earlier than he made choices, which might generally vex his lieutenants. However on this case, he didn’t hesitate. He instructed Birgeneau to go forward, saying that he’d again him in opposition to the division heads if it got here to that. If there have been inequities, MIT wanted to repair them. Birgeneau quoted Vest’s actual phrases to Leigh Royden, one of many three ladies in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. Leigh relayed the phrases to Nancy, who wrote them on a sticky observe that she connected to her pc monitor: “The president mentioned, ‘Do it.’” 

Tailored from The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Struggle for Ladies in Science, by Kate Zernike, and reprinted with permission from Scribner. Copyright 2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *