The MIT Study

May 18, 2013

I’ve been trying to blog about this since before “blog” was a word. :)

A long time ago in a state far, far away….

Women In Science and Engineering (WISE)

So, let’s first back up. In college, I was part of this amazing WISE mentoring program, as a math and physics major. We were assigned study groups and had many, many opportunities for mentorship. It was absolutely key to keeping me involved. As part of the program, we were all required to take a certain class — a women’s studies focused on STEM course — which ended with us choosing and then interviewing a woman scientist and writing up a paper on it. I don’t recall if there were more requirements. Being who I am, naturally I couldn’t choose just one; I chose three women to interview:

  • a Physics post-doc, on RHIC maybe(?);
  • a mid-career Chemist at Brookhaven, in charge of her lab;
  • an editor for a prominent Physics journal, who was nearing retirement.

Once I had their stories, I struggled with how to tie them together into a single paper. They’d all contributed an interesting point of view, and one that I wanted to share, but their stories were pretty varied and didn’t seem to flow well together at all. I spent a reasonable chunk of one night in search of research, and found:

The MIT Study

Please go read the whole study, even though I’m paraphrasing. It’s fascinating. :)

How the study came about

  • Three tenured women faculty started a conversation one day, and realized that gender had likely caused distinct differences in their careers, as compared to their male colleagues.
  • They polled the remaining other 12 women in all the departments in the School. Recognition that a problem existed was “instantaneous” amongst most of the remaining women.
  • They requested that the Dean of the School of Science establish a committee to improve the status of the women faculty. The Dean quickly started to champion the cause, and interviews were collected, as well as data on salary, space, resources for research, named chairs, prizes, awards, amount of salary paid from individual grants, teaching obligations and assignments, committee assignments – departmental, Institute, outside professional activities and committees, and pipeline data: numbers of women/men students and faculty over time.

Findings of the Committee

  • The number of women faculty had not changed in at least 10, and possibly 20, years. There was no indication that this number might rise. See Table 2 and Figure 2 for the data on the pipeline leaks at every stage of career.
  • Junior women faculty felt supported, but concerned over balancing work and home lives.
  • Senior women faculty felt “invisible,” and as if they had no power.


An important finding to emerge from the interviews was that the difference in the perception of junior and senior women faculty about the impact of gender on their careers is a difference that repeats itself over generations. Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was “solved” in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result.

Back to my paper

After digesting the major findings of the study, I realized that I had interviewed both junior- and senior-level women, and their comments had matched the MIT faculty exactly:

  • the Physics post-doc had commented that it seemed like most of the major work of feminism had already been achieved, and that whenever anyone had a problem with her, she just ignored it; clearly it was *their* problem. She was upbeat and positive.
  • the mid-career Chemist had ranted for a good portion of the time I was with her. She toured me through times she’d undeservedly lost funding, as well as comments other scientists had made to and about her and her work. We discussed the fears and regrets she had, and the backlash she’d faced to speaking up, to fighting for something, and to not behaving how one was expected to behave. She drove home just how much *work* I was in for by detailing some of her personal costs, but she was also torn: she loved her work, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It was tremendously illuminating.
  • the Editor had been a practicing scientist for the vast majority of her career. I don’t recall her exact words, but she had stopped practicing her field, in short, because she was tired of fighting constantly. I would refer to her mood as “resigned” for the course of the interview.

It was one of the more depressing moments of my life. I *don’t* want to end up in a non-practicing role. But it was also one of the most empowering, because one result of the MIT study, was that after the committee’s findings were announced, measures were taken to bring the women faculty onto more equal footing. And there were comments like this:

[One] woman, describing the change in her professional life, noted, “I was unhappy at MIT for more than a decade. I thought it was the price you paid if you wanted to be a scientist at an elite academic institution. After the Committee formed and the Dean responded, my life began to change. My research blossomed, my funding tripled. Now I love every aspect of my job. It is hard to understand how I survived those years – or why.”

I have so much more to add, but it will have to wait for a future post. ‘Til then, internet.

posted in WIT by rach

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3 Comments to "The MIT Study"

  1. Kelsey wrote:

    Ugh, the parallels….

  2. Dr. Lisa Schaefer wrote:

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve observed. And I think women with kids are mst likely to drop out. Anyone less tenacious han myself would’ve dropped out after being sexually assaulted in the office. But I didn’t spend 12 years in college to be an editor. I’m an inventor and crusader. I no longer work for The Man, but I’m still innovating technology. And I have the power to do so because I live below my means.

  3. Jordan wrote:

    I don’t know what’s more heartbreaking: the slow march into jaded resignation exposed in the study, the universal recognition of this experience by you and other women here or the fact that every woman I know has to navigate this messed up world.

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