Breaking Down Barriers

This article appears in the February 2, 2001 issue of Science magazine.

BOSTON-- The leaders of nine top U.S. research universities this week pledged to smash the glass ceiling that hinders women from advancing at their institutions. Meeting on Monday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the all-male group stopped short of setting a specific agenda but acknowledged that women face greater obstacles in climbing the academic ladder. "It's momentous just to get these nine together," says Patricia Jones, a biologist and vice provost at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, who attended the meeting. "Count me as a happy camper," adds Stanford economist and participant Myra Strober.

Hosted by MIT president Charles Vest, this week's meeting grew out of a 1999 internal report that found the small number of MIT women science faculty members had consistently less lab space, recognition, and leadership responsibilities than their male counterparts (Science, 26 March 1999, p. 1992). In a one-page statement, the presidents agreed that barriers exist, that more data are needed, and that they would work together to improve the situation. The discussions ranged from offering child care at academic conferences to monitoring the progress of young faculty and guarding against gender imbalances in hiring and promotions. Following the MIT model, a number of schools are putting together their own reports. Attending the meeting were the presidents, chancellors, or other senior administrators of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale universities, the universities of California-Berkeley, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the California Institute of Technology, and MIT.

A major focus was on quantifying the problem. Shirley Malcom, education chief for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes Science), laid out the issue in the daylong, closed-door meeting. "You don't collect what you don't want to know, and you can't make progress to a goal without measuring it," she told Science. Vest says that although the group did not endorse a collective approach to data gathering, participants agreed to find ways to fill in the gap. Such details likely will be discussed at a second meeting tentatively slated for 2002.

Financial backing for the meeting came from the Ford Foundation and an anonymous donor, each of whom gave MIT $500,000 last spring to address the issue of women and minorities in academic science. "They encouraged us to reach out," says Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist and a leader of the MIT study effort. MIT is chipping in a similar amount.

In California, meanwhile, state legislators planned a 5-hour hearing this week on equity and retention of female faculty members in the University of California (UC) system, the nation's largest. The hearing stems from concerns by UC faculty members that the recent abandonment of state affirmative action policies aimed at increasing the number of minority students and faculty members is also eroding the hiring of women.

At UC Davis, for example, 37 out of 44 professors hired in 1999 were male. And the percentage of women hired in the overall UC system has declined from 36% in 1996--when the policies were still in place--to about 24% in 2000. "The situation is now critical," says California Senator Jackie Speier (D), who was to chair the hearing. A state audit of UC's hiring policies is due out next month.

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