Life/Work - Issue 35

"How come these men have so much and you have so little?"

For Nancy Hopkins, the defining event occurred in 1994, when she was teaching a biology course that she had developed and then taught with a male colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At one point, her colleague told her that he was going to write a textbook based on the course material — with another male colleague. "Suddenly, I was out, and he was in," Hopkins, now 57, explains. The following Saturday morning, while she was sitting in front of her computer, a feeling of utter despair suddenly crystallized into a sense of determined resolve. "I can't do this anymore," she said to herself. "I can't make up for what has been taken from me just by working harder."

Hopkins's epiphany was a long time coming. At a time when few women were entering science, she earned her PhD in biology from Harvard University in 1971, joined the faculty at MIT in 1973, and won tenure there at the age of 35 in 1979. By any standard, she was a rising star. But as sharp as her trajectory seemed, the trip to the top was not a happy one. "My life at MIT was difficult from the time I arrived," she says. "I loved science, but it always seemed as if I was battling or as if I was trying to fix something. Women weren't brought up to be as competitive as men, and if I had a problem, I thought it was that I wasn't competitive enough. I couldn't believe that I was being discriminated against."

Over the years, things got worse. At one point, Hopkins tried to add personnel to her research group, but she was told that a lab of more than 20 people was "highly unusual." Later, she discovered that an average staff size in the labs of tenured male professors was 23 people. Another time, Hopkins spent an exhausting year pleading with her superiors for an additional 200 square feet of lab space and then discovered that even junior colleagues, many of them men, already had more space than she had. One day, a woman who washed glassware in Hopkins's laboratory turned to Hopkins and said, "How come these men have so much, and you have so little?" Hopkins was mortified. "All I could think to myself was 'Good grief, this woman isn't a scientist, and she can see what's happening,' " Hopkins said.

In June 1994, Hopkins wrote a letter to Charles Vest, the president of MIT, detailing what she felt was a pattern of discrimination. Concerned about whether the letter went overboard, she showed it to her most esteemed female colleague. "I expected her to think badly of me," Hopkins explains. "Instead, when she got to the bottom of the letter, she said, 'I'd like to sign this and go with you to see the president.' I was blown away. From that moment, my life changed."

Hopkins couldn't have imagined how many other lives her letter would eventually change. The letter (and MIT's response to it) has helped spark a nationwide movement. During the past year, a new wave of feminist demands for equality has been sweeping through American universities — in science and in medicine particularly, but also in other fields. At Stanford University last year, dozens of female professors filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging a pattern of discrimination. In April 1999, at the University of Washington, five female professors filed a class-action lawsuit alleging pay disparities between men and women. And in May 1999, at the Florida State University College of Law, five female professors resigned en masse, citing gender and racial bias.

This movement is unique because it is being spearheaded not by women who are clamoring for admission to the highest reaches of academia but by women who are already there. Like Hopkins, many women discover at midlife that, despite all of their hard work and visible accomplishments, they still feel marginalized and treated unequally. Additionally, as they look around, they realize that their ranks haven't increased over the years. Critics, including many men who are in positions of power at universities, argue that there aren't enough qualified female candidates to fill the top jobs. But is it reasonable to suggest that, while women are strong enough to fill nearly half of all open positions at medical schools and graduate schools, they somehow lose their skills over time? Isn't it more likely that, as with Hopkins, the opportunities that women are given as they climb up the ladder are simply not equal to those that men are given?

A confluence of two events at MIT prompted action and drew national attention. First, 16 of the university's 17 tenured women in the sciences signed Hopkins's complaint — an extraordinary act of solidarity. "I realized then that I was part of a pattern," says Hopkins. "Until that point, I had thought that my situation was unique." Second, the administration listened. Ordinarily, powerful people within institutions who are confronted with their shortcomings deny, obfuscate, rationalize, and deceive. By contrast, the powers that be at MIT simply owned up to their faults.

No one did that more openly than Robert Birgeneau, a physicist who had been the dean of science at MIT for eight years and who later described his first meeting with Hopkins as "akin to a religious experience." Even before he tried to assess a factual basis for the complaint, Birgeneau recognized that there was a serious problem. "If these outstanding and high-achieving people — in the top 1% of women in the country by any measure — are miserable, that is a crucial kind of data point," he told "Science" magazine. With support from Charles Vest — but over initial objections by five of the six male science-department chairmen at MIT — a committee composed of women and men was established to investigate the complaint.

"The key conclusion that one gets from the report," wrote Lotte Bailyn, a longtime faculty member at MIT, "is that gender discrimination in the 1990s was subtle but pervasive." In fact, much of the discrimination was not so subtle. The percentage of tenured female science-faculty members at MIT — about 8% — had not changed significantly in two decades. In general, salaries for senior women remained substantially lower than those for comparable men. In some departments, women had 50% less laboratory space than their male counterparts had, and they were far less represented on key committees than males were.

These statistics are borne out nationally, both in science and in medicine. Women now constitute 43% of all U.S. medical students, for example, but their representation within academic medicine drops precipitously throughout their careers. They make up 37% of residents, 27% of full-time medical-school faculty, and less than 11% of full professors. In the natural sciences and in engineering, only 12.5% of senior faculty members are women. Those percentages have not changed appreciably during the past 15 years. Women are also less likely than men are to have dedicated lab space, grant support, and protected time for research.

While the subtler forms of discrimination that tenured women experience are harder for advocates to quantify and easier for critics to disparage, they're often compelling. For Kathryn Reed, 49, a tenured professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, the turning point came when a female colleague's contract was not renewed on the grounds that she treated subordinates badly. "Her behavior was very similar to the behavior of male faculty," Reed told me. "I didn't like the behavior of either gender, but it was tolerated in men and not in women. I figured that if I went to the authorities and pointed that out, they would repent and behave equitably. That shows some naivete on my part, but I had been working under the assumption that life was fair. Instead, I was told, 'It's not your problem. You are a good woman, and she is a bad woman.' "

Hopkins's crusade has helped to inspire women across the country. And MIT's actions have inspired universities such as Caltech, UCLA, and the University of Arizona to study discrimination issues more formally.

Other institutions are slower to respond. At Stanford, for example, John Hennessy, the university's provost, has said that he sees no "systemic problem," even though women represent only about 19.8% of the school's faculty — far below the national average of 28.3% — and even though the university is the target of a formal discrimination complaint by a group of its most senior women. But Stanford has earmarked a fund that's designed in part to recruit female faculty members and has launched a series of campus lunches at which female faculty members can air their concerns. At Harvard, where only 11 of 163 tenured professors in the natural sciences are women, a subcommittee of the Board of Overseers is trying to find a reason for the disproportion.

Even at MIT and other institutions committed to addressing the gender issue, inequalities are far from resolved. MIT has redressed salary and research-space disparities in the school of science and has increased by 40% the number of tenured female professors. But women still remain a small minority of senior faculty, and not one of them heads a department in the sciences. Hopkins bluntly describes the chairman of her own department, Robert Sauer, as "clueless when it comes to this issue." (He declined to comment.) "I don't think that anyone knows how to fix the underlying attitudes that marginalize women," Hopkins laments.

But light does produce heat. The most powerful formula for change occurs when senior women gather together, marshal persuasive evidence, and find at least one sympathetic person at the top — almost inevitably a man. The mostly male executives running corporations across America would do well to take note. News travels at warp speed in the new economy. The same sort of senior women who are finally rising up at academic institutions are more and more likely to rise up at corporations, where they remain woefully underrepresented and grievously undervalued among top management.

MIT's response to Hopkins's complaint suggests that honesty and a willingness to change are, by themselves, powerful ameliorative answers. "When I look back upon the first 20 years of my work, I considered them a failure, and I counted the days until I could retire," Hopkins says. "Now I love my life, inside the lab and out." While she is concerned that she may now be better remembered as a crusader for women than as a scientist, Hopkins takes some solace from a letter that she received recently from a 10-year-old girl. "I just want to tell you that what you are doing now IS PART OF BEING A GREAT SCIENTIST!!!" the child wrote. "You are opening the door of opportunity even wider for girls like me who want to go as far as possible in science. Thank you for your courage."

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is a contributing editor to Fast Company. He is also the author of "What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America" (Bantam 1996).

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