Morning in American Science

In 1994, after years of feeling like an outsider, Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), began to investigate the satisfaction level of MIT's female faculty. ?After 15 years I came to realize that women were not treated like men. It made me so upset that I could not go on unless I did something,? she said. She pored through the literature, looked into faculty funding, and spoke to her colleagues. Hopkins noticed that in the literature it seemed that when a woman made a seminal discovery a man would get the credit. At first she didn?t quite trust her findings, so she delved deeper. ?I didn?t want to appear paranoid; I thought that failure of people to acknowledge your work was just competitive; I didn?t know that it happened to me more than to my male colleagues,? she said.

What she found was disquieting. After careful research, Hopkins, along with 16 of 17 women on the biological sciences faculty who shared many of her concerns--several of them members of the National Academies of Sciences--wrote a letter to MIT's dean of natural sciences. The letter listed specific cases of inequity that had plagued women faculty at MIT. ?The letter turned out to be the best thing we ever wrote, because we had a consensus,? Hopkins explained.

In 1995, the dean of science appointed a committee to investigate, and, suddenly, the invisible problems of the past became visible challenges for the present. The committee's report, issued early in 1999, documented serious financial, political, and social barriers that hinder women faculty. The report also described the ways the university was trying to remedy the discrepancies. Foremost on the fix-it list was to hire more women and promote deserving female faculty to high-ranking administrative posts. ?You might say that phase I of the women?s liberation movement in many fields of science--back in the '60s and '70s--was to show that women can do science at the highest levels. Phase II was getting a handful of women far enough into the system that some could get to the top and reshape the institutions to make them as compatible for women as men,? Hopkins said.

The MIT report started a revolution of sorts. Since its publication, institutions all over the country have been conducting similar surveys and assessments. These surveys have uncovered problems, even at establishments where women make up a substantial proportion of the faculty.

In December of 2001, the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and issued its own report. ?Since Caltech is so much smaller than MIT, our survey was more personally organized,? said Marianne Bronner-Fraser, an Albert Billings Ruddock professor of biology at Caltech. Caltech?s committee interviewed female faculty members and compared each discussion to one with a peer male faculty member. The committee found the faculty disgruntled when it came to tenure issues, child care, and hiring. These problems crossed the gender lines and seemed to depend on age: Young faculty were unhappy about the same things, whether they were male or female, according to Bronner-Fraser, who is now Chair of Faculty and the first woman to hold this post at Caltech.

Because her 2-year term as Chair of Faculty is short, Bronner-Fraser is focusing on three key elements that she wants to see improved: hiring more women, clarifying the tenure process, and increasing the availability of child care. ?The major positive thing to come out of this issue is hiring," said Bronner-Fraser. Currently, only 10% of the faculty at Caltech is female. "The administration has said that they want to double the number of women in the next 10 years.?

In the very near future, the university will launch a campaign to raise funds to build a new child care center, using Rockefeller University's child care program as an inspiration. Institutional assistance with child care will make balancing a high-powered scientific career with family more achievable for both male and female faculty. And, like Hopkins, Bronner-Fraser believes that the promotion of women to positions with greater mentoring and hiring influence will tempt more women to apply for faculty positions.

In July 2002, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), released the results of its own survey focusing on the quality of faculty life. The UCSF survey spanned medical, dental, nursing, pharmacy, and other research faculties. When she looked over the UCSF report, Anneilla Sargent, a professor of astronomy at Caltech and chairperson of the committee that produced the Caltech survey, said that she was impressed by the many similarities between UCSF and Caltech.

Unlike MIT, which only has 13% women faculty in the sciences, UCSF School of Medicine has 30%. But there is still a dearth of women in high-ranking positions. This discrepancy partially stems from the complex faculty structure of the University of California. ?There are a lot of nuances, a mystique as to how and where different faculty are recruited,? said Ruth Greenblatt, professor of clinical medicine and epidemiology and co-chairperson of the task force on faculty life at UCSF.

Reports in Short ?

The 1999 MIT report was spearheaded by a letter written by the majority of female faculty in the biological sciences. An addition to the report was submitted in early 2002.

Caltech?s report, which was finalized in December of 2001, was conducted by the committee on the status of women faculty at Caltech. The committee was comprised of both male and female faculty members spanning the many disciplines of Caltech.

The UCSF survey was designed by an ad hoc committee of women faculty in consultation with the Chancellor?s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (CACSW).

UC Los Angeles?s survey can be found here.

Recently the University of Toronto conducted a survey of its faculty.

UCSF has four faculty ranks. "Ladder" rank is the major pool from which division chairs and other top administrators are hired. Other faculty ranks are "In Residence," "Clin-X" (clinician educators and scholars), and Adjunct and Clinical faculty. Each rank has its own responsibilities and benefits. According to Greenblatt, the majority of women faculty are in Adjunct and Clinical positions. "The Adjunct and Clinical ranks are currently a pink-collar ghetto," she added.

To combat what she calls ?the mystique? in hiring and promotion, Greenblatt and the UCSF task force hope to investigate ways to promote women faculty to higher positions and study further whether there is really discrimination in hiring and promotion. The task force also wants to improve the hiring process such that it better reflects the needs of women faculty. "We risk significant losses of talent if large numbers of women are preferentially attracted to industry and other nonacademic positions; retention of women in the academy has really become an issue of supporting scientific excellence," Greenblatt said. ?The issues that we have here at UCSF are no different from other institutions."

Like MIT and Caltech, the task force at UCSF has a tentative list of improvements they would like to see made in the near future: improving part-time options, greater job flexibility, and counseling for faculty to apprise them of the avenues available to rise in the ranks. ?We are training more and more women, but still there are very few that go all the way in academics. There is a brain drain going on and unless we correct it there will be a cost to pay,? Greenblatt said. ?It?s going to be tough to truly change, but our chancellor is very sincere in wanting to fix the problems that exist."

It may seem like a daunting challenge, but change can happen fast. When the MIT report first appeared there weren?t any woman deans at Princeton University. Two years later, in 2001, Shirley Tilghman, professor of molecular biology, was elected president of Princeton. Soon after her selection, Tilghman appointed a woman, Amy Gutmann, as Provost. And today, one of six deans at Princeton is a woman. ?That shows how quickly you can make progress,? Nancy Hopkins said.

In a 2002 update to the initial MIT faculty report, Robert Silbey, dean of the school of science at MIT, wrote: ?the 1999 report ? was a ?wake-up call? to the faculty of MIT.? That wake-up call was heard all over the nation, and universities are starting to ignore the snooze button.

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