Numbers that cannot be ignored

The dean’s assistant showed them to his conference room. Nancy was always interested in seeing it; here the Science Council debates about tenure decisions. It was a beautiful room, with high ceilings and wooden panels. Nancy’s eyes went to the long polished-wood table that dominated the room. He thinks in the opening scene of The Girls on the Balcony, which depicts when the New York Times’ newly formed Women’s Caucus met with the publisher and other men at the newspaper’s masthead across a 25-foot table, an obdurate, gleaming mahogany symbol of the 121-year-old institution challenged by women. For journalists in the book, it seems to be powerful, “continue as far as the eye can see.” This table was smaller, Nancy thought, but no less intimidating.

Someone had placed soft drinks, coffee, and cookies on a credenza next to the table. Above it was a large photograph, and Nancy saw that the other girls’ eyes were fixed on it. It was a picture of Robert Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, and the five department heads of the school. They were all men, as department heads always were, and all grinning. One is wearing a tuxedo. They raised their fingers to say, “We are number one!” Suddenly all Nancy saw in the room was the photo. He is sick. This is all a bad idea. He remembered what Penny had been saying all summer: “We’re not on their radar screen.”

The women spent the last month painstakingly preparing a proposal for the dean, asking him to form a committee to review data on space, salaries, resources, and teaching assignments to ensure that the women are treated equally compared to men. The committee meets with each woman on the faculty once a year to identify any problems, and then recommends ways to solve them to the dean. Only 17 of the 214 tenured faculty in the School of Science are women. Sixteen of them signed a letter—respectful, condescending, collaborative in tone—that accompanied the proposal to the dean.

“We believe that discrimination will be less possible if women are seen as powerful, instead of weak, as valued, instead of allowed by the Institute. The heart of the problem is that equal talent and achievement are considered unequal if seen in the eyes of prejudice.

“There is a widespread perception among women faculty that there is persistent, though largely unconscious, gender discrimination within the Institute,” they wrote. “We believe that the unequal treatment of women who come to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed, causes them to be given less recognition when they do, and contributes greatly to a poor quality of life that these women can become negative role models for young women. We believe that discrimination will be less possible if women are seen as powerful, rather than weak, as valued, rather than allowed by the Institute. The heart of the problem is that equal talent and achievement are viewed as unequal when seen through the eyes of prejudice. If only the Institute had more clearly indicated that it views women as valuable, a more realistic view of their abilities and achievements by their administrators, partners, and staff will eventually follow.

They worry about every detail, meet in secret, and cut early drafts, afraid to be known as activists or, worse, radicals. They believe the dean has already alerted the Institute’s lawyers.

But Penny was right. When Bob Birgeneau entered his conference room for his three o’clock that afternoon, he didn’t even know what the meeting was about. He didn’t read the letter or the proposal that the girls had so carefully written, cut, and written last month. He had just returned from Brookhaven National Lab, on Long Island, where he spent the better part of each summer running neutron scattering experiments in the High Flux Beam Reactor. He spent his early career avoiding administrative jobs, and while he liked his role as dean, he preferred to be in the lab, especially at Brookhaven, where he did his own research without postdoc or graduate students to be supervised. He came back recharging, as he always did. To the six women sitting waiting for him, he presented a picture of confidence and ease, a late summer tan, and a wide smile.

When Professor Nancy Hopkins decided to begin research on zebrafish, she requested an additional 200 square feet of office space to accommodate her fish tanks. He was always turned down.


If he had to, Birgeneau would have guessed they were there to talk about a dispute he knew all too well: last spring, Nancy had met with him about getting rid of teaching an introductory biology course that he developed, even though he got high. rating from students. Instead, Nancy explained how they met over the summer, said they wanted to work with the university, and explained their idea for a women’s committee. He typed notes, knowing that he would have a hard time controlling his nerves. Boldly he typed: “Progress in universities comes when faculty are committed to a committed administration. There is an opportunity now at MIT to do something important about this very important problem. .”

The girls went around the conference table, starting with Sylvia, then JoAnne. They described the arc of their careers: how hopeful they felt coming to MIT, in the end feeling alone, ignored, disappointed by the resources. Lisa talked about salaries, telling how some women realized they were underpaid after they were suddenly raised. Women know that if they choose careers in science they will have to sacrifice their personal lives, but they don’t expect to be paid less than their male colleagues. None of the women in the room had children, Nancy told her: “They’re not even married yet.”

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