MIT Report Cites Progress for Women Faculty

Men still far outnumber women on the science and engineering faculties at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But a new MIT report says women have made so much progress in the past decade that the university must grapple with a new set of issues if it hopes to take full advantage of their talents.

The number of women has grown from 44 to 112 in the two schools since 1995, according to the new report, and women now comprise 17% of the faculty. "I was surprised that the numbers were that large," says Lorna Gibson, an engineering professor who chaired both a 2002 study and the reassessment released today. "The entire culture changes when you go from a situation in which there may be one woman in a department to one in which there are six or seven."

MIT President Susan Hockfield says the report, based on interviews with women faculty members, demonstrates the "stunning progress" MIT has made in hiring more women and increasing their job satisfaction. But that progress creates its own problems, say Gibson and Hazel Sive, a biology professor who chaired an update of a 1999 report on the science faculty members. That report, championed by Nancy Hopkins, became the impetus for changes at the Cambridge school, which existed for more than a century before hiring its first woman engineer in 1964.

The earlier reports focused on such core aspects of a faculty member's life as lab space and salaries. The new study also looks at how well-intentioned efforts by MIT administrators to give women an equitable place at the table on influential management bodies such as search committees and departmental councils could actually be making it harder for them to do world-class research.

"The pendulum has swung to the other extreme," says Sive, whose report cites the "burden of service" on such panels. "The 1999 report said women were excluded from high-level service. Now it's gotten to the point where committees that don't even need to be concerned about gender" are seeking a balance between men and women. "Women have to learn to be selective. You don't have to accept every invitation," adds Gibson.

The report says that MIT must continue to work on gender issues "for the foreseeable future." And Sive laughs when asked how close MIT is to achieving gender equality. "What everybody here wants is just to be viewed as smart," she says. "But how long will it be before we can eliminate consideration of gender in our actions? I just don't know."