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MIT vows to counter gender bias

By Patrick Healy, Boston Globe Staff from the Web, March 20, 2002

It was a proud time for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Eight of last year's Nobel laureates were men who had once studied or taught on campus, part of a long tradition of scientists and engineers who built MIT's elite reputation on their prize-winning theories and data sets.

But that culture of achievement is taking on a less flattering cast this week, with revelations of widespread, entrenched bias against female professors in everything from salaries and promotions to office space and interactions.

In response to five reports released Monday night, each a study of gender-based inequities in MIT's five schools, officials and faculty members say they are committing themselves to a new kind of statistics-driven work: ensuring the professional happiness and career success of women scholars by monitoring salaries, promotions, and inclusion on powerful committees.

Despite hiring more female professors and appointing them deans or department heads, MIT remains a place where the lack of women has made it difficult for campus leaders to see gender inequities develop and to address them, officials and professors said yesterday.

''MIT is in a transitional moment, taking the lead on questions of gender inequity that are very tough to identify, tough to attack, and tough to solve,'' said Deborah Fitzgerald, associate professor of the history of technology and coauthor of one of the reports.

MIT Provost Robert A. Brown said yesterday that as recently as 1990, there were not enough women on the faculty ''for any of them to start explaining what was wrong to us.'' But the new reports place MIT at the forefront of US universities confronting gender inequity, he said.

Female professors at the University of Colorado, Berkeley, and other schools are pressuring officials to examine gender imbalance.

''We want to become the leader in mentoring young female faculty and monitoring the careers of tenured women and working more aggressively to increase their numbers and making the institution a more friendly place for women,'' Brown said.

Women make up almost 18 percent of the MIT faculty, compared with 12 percent when the first MIT study began in 1994. About 40 percent of MIT undergraduates and 27 percent of graduate students are female.

The reports, issued by faculty-led committees at the schools of engineering, humanities, management, and architecture, found evidence of bias throughout the 1990s and 2000. The findings were similar to problems revealed by an MIT faculty committee in a 1999 report on the School of Science: Women on average often earn less and feel disrespected and underassisted compared with their male colleagues. The four reports, as well as an update on the original School of Science study, do not disclose salary data, but they highlight other disparities:

Women hold only 2 of 52 institute professorships, MIT's highest faculty honor, and have received the Killian faculty achievement award twice in 29 years.

MIT's departments of civil engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science - the two make up half the School of Engineering faculty - had a net gain of two female professors during most of the 1990s. They have since hired more women.

The economics department, which is about 85 percent male, pays the highest salaries in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, while departments with a more even gender balance, such as anthropology and writing, have the lowest pay.

Some female professors told the authors of the reports that they were effectively punished - lost shots at tenure or leadership posts - for having children or devoting more time to their personal lives. Some said they felt overwhelmed trying to balance their personal and professional lives - and discouraged by the MIT culture from openly trying to change the system.

The Sloan School of Management had only one female senior professor in 1989 working alongside 33 male colleagues. This year, there are six women and 56 men. Women on average took five years to earn promotions to a full professorship, compared with three years for men. Their salaries, too, were 16 percent less than they should have been based on age, rank, and experience, according to the report.

Brown said that MIT has tried to equalize male and female salaries in the past few years, at a total cost of less than $1 million, and that no new effort to boost salaries was planned. Rather, the emphasis is on appointing more women to high-ranking positions and recruiting female professors.

The administration is not setting new hiring or promotion goals, but some schools have their own: Engineering wants a faculty of 20 percent women by 2012; the proportion grew from 5 percent in 1990 to 10 percent last year.

John V. Guttag, head of electrical engineering and computer science, said his department had a poor track record in the 1990s because several women turned down job offers to stay at Stanford University or Berkeley, in part because their husbands did not want to move. The dot-com bust will change that, he said, as will his commitment to hiring female PhD students at MIT as professors.

''Should we offer a woman PhD more salary than a male PhD because we want women?'' Guttag asked. ''Maybe. We haven't done that before, but we need to be asking what ways we can reach our priorities.''

 

 

 

 

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Last modified:  08/02/2008