Nancy Hopkins has told the story many times now. In the mid-1990s, a group of women scientists at MIT started talking about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of gender bias holding them back. As Boston University President Robert Brown noted when he introduced Hopkins Tuesday, it was a very small group. In 1994, there were 194 tenured male faculty at the MIT School of Science and 17 women.
Brown had been MIT provost for a year in 1999 when the groundbreaking study that emerged from that meeting came out. He became co-chair with Hopkins of the MIT Council on Faculty Diversity and played a key role in the effort to address gender bias.
On Tuesday, Hopkins made the trip over to Brown’s turf give a talk entitled “Mirages of Equality.” Mirages, she said, because laws that made discrimination against women illegal only got them so far.
“On the other side of that wall were a series of obstacles to women’s advancement that we hadn’t anticipated,” she said. One was sexual harassment, a topic in the news these days, but unfamiliar to Hopkins at the time.
The experience, however, was familiar. She recalled a day in her early career at Cold Spring Harbor when she met geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick. He walked up behind her, she said, and put his hands on her breasts.
“I thought, how can I get out of this situation so he’ll look at my lab notebook, " then realized, “When a man does that, it’s possible that he’s not interested in your lab notebook.”
Two other problems: lack of mentoring for women and the conflict between family and career. With the long hours in the lab many women faced the question: “How could you be the kind of scientist you wanted to be and be a mother?”
Back then, if seh wanted to pursue academic science, a “women’s choice to have children or not have children was not a choice,” Hopkins said. “Baby was a four letter.” .
Women still grapple with this issue but now maternity leave is more like a sabbatical, she said.
The bias problems identified at MIT are the same problems facing other research institutions, she said. That was clear from the response to the 1999 report, which was updated this year, she said. Still, problems persist. Many female students still deal with male colleagues who think the bar is lower for women who get into MIT. Women still have more family responsibilities than men and both men and women tend to undervalue women’s achievements, Hopkins said. As long as the notion of women’s intellectual inferiority exists, women need to keep the issue of bias on the table.
“There’s only one kind of equal,” she said. “And, that’s equal.”