In their pursuit of science and discovery, the few female scientists at MIT in the late 20th century found themselves faced with hurdles related to their gender, rather than their research. So they did what scientists do: they quantified it. One journalist took notice.
Who is she? Kate Zernike is a national reporter for the New York Times, covering politics, healthcare, and more.
- She is also the author of book, The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, which details the struggles of female researchers aiming to gain equality among male peers.
What's the big deal? Zernike was first to report the story of MIT's reluctant gender activists in the 1990s, and did so while working for The Boston Globe in 1999. She has since revisited the story and her book delves into the less known details.
- It begins with molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins, who was only 19 years old when she discovered her passion for working with the subject matter.
- And after working her way up through the ranks at MIT, gaining tenure, and formulating ambitious plans for genetic research, Hopkins still found herself marred by the barriers she encountered in the workplace, struggling to even claim a fair amount of space in the lab.
- "I began collecting data and measuring lab space with a tape measure so I could convince my administrators that I deserved to have an additional two-inch square feet of space. But nothing happened as quickly as I wanted it to happen," Hopkins recalled.
- Soon after, Hopkins began speaking to other women about their experiences, and they began constructing a landmark study documenting widespread discrimination against female professors at MIT.
What are people saying? Zernike spoke with All Things Considered about her experience writing the book, the significance of this study, and the waves felt by its impact in the present day.
On why Hopkins and her colleagues were hesitant to complain at first:
It starts with small slights, things that you probably wouldn't complain about. But gradually, over time, they realize that it starts to add up to less money, less space in the lab, all sorts of things that really do hinder their ability to do science. So it was really that they were so passionate about their science that they didn't complain until these problems were really getting in the way of them doing science.
On how the trailblazing women feared discouraging others:
That's one of the reasons that I called the book The Exceptions. Not only were these women exceptional in their talent and their brilliance, but when they faced these problems, they thought, "Well, this is just me. It's just a situation. It's just a personality conflict." It wasn't until really late in the game in their careers that they thought, "Oh, no, this is happening to other women." And one of the reasons they couldn't see that is that there were so few of them.
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On how Hopkins' journey demonstrated a model for social change:
I was writing this from 2018 until last year, and there's been so much social movement, social change, social protest in those years. And Nancy didn't get everything she wanted in the end, but they really were able to work from within the system. I think some of the men in the book would argue that you have to work within the system, but, of course, they were allies. So I think this really speaks to finding those allies.
On the key takeaways from their experiences:
I think there are a couple of things. One, again, as I say, I think it just helps to understand or to see through someone else's eyes — in this case, Nancy's — how this happens and how it accumulates. But I think the lessons are that, yes, we do need to speak up about this. And I also think you don't have to do it in an adversarial way.
These women went about it in a very scientific, almost clinical way, and they really made their case persuasively. MIT did not have to be forced into a lawsuit. They did the right thing. I think the other lesson is, this country is now facing yet another debate about affirmative action. And these women were almost all of them affirmative action hires in the '70s, which was the first big push for it. And they all really trusted in the meritocracy. They all thought that if they just did their science, merit would rise to the top. And what they found is that a true meritocracy does not really exist.
So, what now?
- In the present day, Zernike says that MIT has changed considerably with many senior roles being held by women.
- But Zernike says that discrimination against women in STEM still remains a hurdle for many: "The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine did a study in 2018, and they found that 50% of science faculty women felt that they had been sexually harassed. But they weren't talking about overt sexual assaults or even sexual coercion. It really was the sort of intellectual marginalization, assumptions that women couldn't do science. And that is really the final hurdle for this fight."
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