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Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT: Remarks

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Academic Leaders: Perspectives and Current Challenges
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kresge Auditorium
Cambridge, Massachussetts

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thank you, Dr. Waitz for that kind introduction.

Good morning. It is always a pleasure for me to return to Cambridge, particularly when the event offers an opportunity for me to interact directly with MIT students and faculty, especially at a time in its history when it is being led by a neuroscientist who happens to be a woman — one focused on the role of science and technology in solving national and global challenges. Even more pleasurable is the opportunity to share this podium with my esteemed mentor and friend, Dr. Charles Vest.

As an alumna and a life member of the MIT Corporation, and as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I naturally am concerned with the situation of women in science and engineering careers, particularly careers in research-intensive universities.

The groundbreaking work conducted at MIT that resulted in the 1999 report, A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT was not the first attempt to understand the special challenges faced by female faculty, but it raised the profile of such studies and laid the groundwork for self-scrutiny at many other institutions. Since then, the National Academies have studied the problem on a national scale, releasing two major publications: Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering in 2007, and Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, in 2010.

A quote from the just-released MIT report -- used by Dr. Nancy Hopkins in her fabulous and important talk -- seems to be an appropriate starting point for my remarks: “This is a celebration—with caveats.”

If one looks at the numbers, the progress -- in opportunities, awards, and enabling mechanisms for women -- is encouraging. These are satisfying intellectually, and they point to objective accomplishments. Reading quotes from the faculty who are involved touches the heart, and may provide the most compelling evidence of change. For most of MIT’s history, I doubt that any woman would have said, “This has been a fabulous place to work.”

And yet, I cannot help but be disappointed by how limited the progress has been nationally. After ten years, we are still a long way from gender equity in science and engineering.

In the 1999 report, Professor Lotte Bailin said, “gender discrimination in the 1990s is subtle, but pervasive, and stems largely from unconscious ways of thinking.” 

The challenge of the 1990s is still a challenge today. Not knowing, not understanding, and not intending does not get us off the hook. We are still responsible for bias that puts obstacles in front of talented and capable people. This is both a moral problem — because we value justice — and a practical problem — because we, as a society, are denying ourselves the insights, ingenuity, and expertise of competent, talented people at a time when we face immense global challenges.

The response to the 1999 MIT report was immediate, with broad press coverage and a deluge of emails, phone calls, and letters.

MIT woke people up. A direct outcome of the report was seen in the initiation of investigations across other schools at MIT. In addition, the so-called Group of Nine came together, and the Gender Equity Project was created. Six of these institutions completed their own studies that paralleled the MIT approach. Their findings on gender equity showed similar patterns of underrepresentation and bias.

Beyond recognizing the issue of gender equity and revealing it in compelling terms, MIT also put the report recommendations into effect and shared these as best practices. The policies that emerged were research-based, not assumption-based. The result is that changes have occurred across much of academia:

  • Greater efforts are made to recruit women.
  • Women are invited onto key, influential committees.
  • The tenure clock has been made more flexible at some universities.

External Success

Women have demonstrated that they have the ability and drive to succeed in science and engineering. And, there is no question that participation by women in academic science and engineering careers has grown in recent years.

What is more, women who apply for faculty positions in mathematics, science, and engineering at major research universities now are hired as often as, and, sometimes, more often than, men; and, of those considered for tenure, women receive tenure at the same or higher rates than men.

       However, the 2010 Gender Differences report found that women continue to be underrepresented among academic faculty relative to the number who receive science and engineering degrees. And they are not applying for tenure-track jobs at research-intensive universities at the same rate that they are earning doctorates. For example, while women received 45 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology awarded by research-intensive universities from 1999 to 2003, they represented only 26 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions at those universities. And, women also spent a significantly longer time as assistant professors.

The problem is not limited to the United States. The need for engineers and scientists is growing throughout the Western Hemisphere. Germany expects to have a shortfall of 200,000 engineers by 2017, and Great Britain will need more than half a million skilled workers. But only 18 percent of tenured professors in the 27 countries of the European Union are women.

In a March 2010 New York Times article, Katrin Bennhold observed, that "In the 21st century, perhaps more than ever before, there will be a premium on scientific and technological knowledge. Science, in effect, will be the last frontier for the women's movement. With humanity poised to tackle pressing challenges—from climate change to complex illness to the fallout from the digital revolution—shortages of people with the right skill sets loom in many countries. Therein lies both opportunity and risk for women: In the years to come, the people who master the sciences will change the world—and most likely command the big paychecks."   

This is a rosy view, but how do we get there?            

What we are learning is that we do not understand the problem fully. Despite aggressive steps taken by universities to promote faculty diversity, under-representation of women at all faculty levels persists. And strategies such as targeted advertising and recruiting have not proven entirely effective.

The difficulty in bridging to the next level

A study by Cornell University researchers found that efforts such as gender sensitivity workshops to prevent discrimination are not particularly effective because women do not, in fact, face discrimination in hiring, interviewing, or grant and manuscript reviewing at the university level. Their study suggested that the major culprit was timing—that women find it extremely difficult to earn tenure and raise children at the same time.

Ironically, research reveals that parenthood has a positive effect on men's success in academic careers. While mothers who sacrifice work for parenting are seen as neglecting their jobs, fathers who make the same choice are admired and rewarded.

Writing for the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse noted that, based on a University of California, Berkeley, study, “Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline,” women are far more likely than men to, "'leak' out of the research science pipeline before obtaining tenure at a college or university." After receiving a Ph.D., married women with young children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position in science than are married men with young children and Ph.D.s in science.

According to the report from the University of California, "women who had children after becoming postdoctoral scholars were twice as likely as their male counterparts to shift their career goals away from being professors with a research emphasis — a 41 percent shift for women versus 20 percent for men."

And a 2005 report from Virginia Tech found a disproportionate share of women made up "voluntary departures" from the faculty. Although women represented one-fifth of the faculty, they accounted for two-fifths of departures.

At every step along the way: from entering college as a science or engineering major to graduating with a technical degree, from entering graduate school to exiting successfully, to getting a postdoc, to succeeding as faculty, to attaining tenure — we need to provide women with bridges to the next level.

As is clear from the studies I mentioned, the unequal burden of family life turns the gaps in the road into chasms. Help with childcare, which has been provided at MIT, and the establishment of parental childbirth leave, which has been provided at Rensselaer, can help. But there is more to be done.

Studies show that, while female faculty may not feel discriminated against, they still often feel more isolated and marginalized in their professional lives than their male counterparts. The Gender Differences report found that women who had a mentor did better than women without one. Investigators found, for example, that in chemistry, female assistant professors with mentors had a 95 percent probability of securing grant funding compared to 77 percent for those without mentors.

Recognizing the importance of mentoring, the National Science Foundation provides grants through a program called ADVANCE (Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers). A program funded by ADVANCE at Rensselaer is called Ramp-Up (which stands for Reforming Advancement Processes Through University Professions.

RAMP-Up’s advancement reforms are intended to benefit the tenure-track faculty at Rensselaer, with special emphasis on women, particularly minority women, in NSF-funded disciplines. Our activities are designed to impact individual faculty, departments, schools, and the university as a whole.

At the level of the individual, RAMP-Up initiatives include communication and networking through colloquies, workshops, and retreats, as well as grants through Career Campaign Awards. At the level of the department, RAMP-Up initiatives include training for department heads as well as grants for Cultural Change Initiatives. At the level of the school, RAMP-Up initiatives include the appointment and activities of Faculty Coaches who serve as information resources and participants in the schools’ advancement processes. At the level of the university, RAMP-Up initiatives include interventions on behalf of individual faculty, promotion and tenure reform, and a Senior Pipeline Search.

The program provides vital help, but it is not enough.

Unfinished business

While we clearly can point to progress over the last decade, more challenges are on the way. Let me point out a few things I see on the horizon that may create new challenges.

A shifting context for measurement

To begin, for those who are on the vanguard of gender equity, a subtle problem may emerge--competition. As gender equity becomes more valued by our culture, the measure may decline in significance because the pool of applicants will have more options. The answer, of course, is to increase the pool of applicants, which in no way has been exhausted. However, we will need to look closely to distinguish declines based on a failure to execute versus changes in demand.

Gender issues seen as women’s issues

Another concern, reflected in the report is that family issues are still perceived as women’s issues. MIT has embraced gender issues as an institutional challenge, but beyond the campus of MIT, gender issues are still perceived as women’s issues. This is unfortunate for key reasons:

  • It automatically lowers the priority of gender equity, putting it into a box (often unexamined by others) that is a special interest of part of the population, not all of the population.
  • It excludes the talent, insight, effort, and wisdom of men.
  • It makes solutions to gender equity more vulnerable to criticism and dismissal.

Engagement is an essential element of social change, and the more distant a directive is from those who must participate in its implementation, the less chance that it will be well executed.

The new face of resistance

Another challenge we are likely to see will be renewed resistance, and new and creative reactions from those who feel threatened by gender equity or those who struggle with the changes it introduces. Earlier this month, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission abandoned an investigation into whether colleges are discriminating against women in admissions. But it is not just a matter of our society stepping backward. The world changes, and, if we focus only on what we have seen before, we may miss what will matter for the next generation. I will offer a few examples:

Pink collar

First, there is one area of engineering that has achieved equity. The number of men and women majoring in biomedical engineering is close to even, and guess what?  The salary for biomedical engineers is flat or going down. Veronica Arreola, director of the Women in Science and Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been quoted as saying, “Engineering fields where women are less than 20 percent pay more.”

“Pink-collar” discrimination is something to watch out for. Where does it come from?

The MIT report mentions a concern that standards drop as women move toward equity in fields. Is the value provided by women being questioned? Other studies show that women’s pay drops because of the double-bind of negotiations. If they do not negotiate aggressively, they lower the price for their field’s expertise. If they do negotiate aggressively, especially in academia, they are not considered to be collegial and are denied promotion or tenure.

The uncertain impact of internationalization and multiculturalism

Here is another factor to consider: the uncertain impact of internationalization of degrees in science and technology. In 2009, about half of all Ph.D.s in physics, math, and computer science went to non-U.S. students. And 55 percent of engineering doctorates went to the foreign-born.

What impact does this have on our hopes for gender equity? An optimistic person might suspect that our efforts to make science and engineering more welcoming in the U.S. would create a stampede of young women from other nations. This may not be the case. A 2006 University of Virginia study of graduate students in computer science found essentially no difference in the percent of women between U.S. and international students. The report concludes, “increasing international students in US programs is not likely to improve the gender balance in computing. To accomplish that goal, we will have to attract more women, regardless of their citizenship.”

As we seek to import people of talent and vision from abroad, we also must grapple with traditions and cultural references that may make it more difficult for the equal status of women to be gained and accepted. And attitudes that threaten the as-yet insufficient gains we have seen may not be limited to male scientists and engineers from developing countries.

In Sweden, women are awarded 44 percent of biomedical Ph.D.s, yet account for a mere 25 percent of post doctorates and only 7 percent of professorial positions. A major study in 1997 of the peer-review system of the Swedish Medical Research Council showed that a woman had to be 2.5 times more productive than a man to be considered equally competent.

To be sure, in some countries women have made great strides in participation in science and engineering, and in assuming leadership positions in these fields.

Social networks as the new arena

Another provocative example is in the area of social networks. As we have seen with the sweeping changes across the Middle East and North Africa, social networks have had a significant influence. In fact, a number of women have been engaged in helping to drive such changes, and have participated in social media, which have helped to enable change.

But a report in January that Wikipedia is authored by men 85 percent of the time is quite interesting. Especially since, for all its obvious limitations, Wikipedia is used as a source of information by 42 percent of American adults. An argument is raging now about whether the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit” possibly could be skewed in favor of men.

Social networks already are integral to the education of our students. They will be key to how the next generation will be introduced to science and engineering, and how they will build relationships and careers. Therefore, as we continue to work toward gender equity, we cannot neglect what happens in social networks.

Actually, a Rensselaer research center focused on social and cognitive networks, sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, is interesting in this regard. Why? The Center is studying the technology of such networks, but also studying how constituency groups form in such networks, how trust is developed, how truth and rumor are sorted out, and what cultural influences and nuances are at work.

Why gender equity is important beyond academia

If the United States is to maintain its scientific and engineering leadership in the 21st century, it must have the full creative and entrepreneurial participation of all its people and must continue to tap talent from abroad. But as long as women face barriers that inhibit their success in research-intensive universities, the nation will be deprived of this vital source of talent — whether drawn domestically or globally. Our national and global future economic and social stability will be at risk. High profile events such as this symposium are critically important to identify and eliminate these barriers to full participation of women in science and technology.

I will add that past experience shows that efforts toward fairness often provide broad benefits. One obvious advantage to gender equity initiatives is that they provide experience and models for developing more equitable systems for people who are shut out because of race, different learning modalities, disabilities, and other differences from the majority that currently holds leadership positions in science and engineering.

On a more basic level, new perspectives and insight pour into fields when the doors crack open. Allowing personal lives to flourish, through flexible tenure clocks, parental child care, recognition that spouses have careers, and initiatives that encourage work-life balance, makes the workplace more humane, and develops our scientists and engineers as whole people, more engaged with families and communities. Moreover, understanding and addressing cultural differences as we work through the issues only enhances our ability to tap the complete talent pool.

We miss much by excluding people of talent. It is difficult to imagine our commitment to environmental stewardship without the awareness generated by marine biologist and author Rachel Carson. The chief champion of the Orphan Drug Act was Abbey Meyers, whose lobbying began when she could not longer get an experimental drug that was helping her son, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. Barbara McClintock developed her theory of transposable elements — so-called “jumping genes” -- in the 1940s. She said it was met with “puzzlement, even hostility.” She stopped publishing her data in 1953, and it was years later that her genius was recognized. She won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. One wonders what might have been accomplished if her work had been accepted earlier.

Through commitment to gender equity, we identify, prepare, and enable the people who can uncover new knowledge to meet our national and global challenges.

Some of the answers are in the MIT study, but I hope we will continue to broaden our exploration of the issues. I hope we will come to better understand:

  • The shifting landscape of equity measurement,
  • The corrosive effect of defining family and gender issues as “women’s issues,”
  • The new face of resistance to equity,
  • The risks of Pink Collar exploitation,
  • The uncertain impact of internationalization and multiculturalism on the progress of women in science and engineering,
  • The emerging role of social networks and their potential impact on women in science and engineering — their participation in the conversation and the endeavor.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions and observations.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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