Reflecting on MIT’s gender equality efforts

The NY Times has an article today reflecting on the efforts MIT has made toward gender equality, drawing out both successes and unintended consequences.


In what the new study calls “stunning” progress, the number of female faculty members has nearly doubled in the School of Science since 1999 and in the School of Engineering since its original study was completed in 2002. More women are in critical decision-making positions at M.I.T. — there is a female president, and women who are deans and department heads. Inequities in salaries, resources, lab space and teaching loads have largely been eliminated.

“I thought things might get better, I thought people had good will, but I never dreamed we’d make this much progress in 10 years,” said Lorna J. Gibson, who led the Engineering School study.

The most serious unintended consequence is the apparently widespread false belief that these successes were due to lowering standards:

But the primary issue in the report is the perception that correcting bias means lowering standards for women. In fact, administrators say they have increased the number of women by broadening their searches. No one is hired without what Marc A. Kastner, the dean of the School of Science, called “off-scale” recommendations from at least 15 scholars outside M.I.T.

Among women on the science and engineering faculties, there are more than two dozen members of the National Academy of Sciences; four winners of the National Medal of Science; the recipient of the top international award in computer science; and the winners of a host of other fellowships and prizes.

“No one is getting tenure for diversity reasons, because the women themselves feel so strongly that the standards have to be maintained,” Professor Kastner said.

Of course, the ever-imperfect NY Times misdescribes this right at the start of the article:

Those who once bemoaned M.I.T.’s lag in recruiting women now worry about what one called “too much effort to recruit women.”

This doesn’t seem to be the case at all from reading the article. According to the article, the people who actually think there’s been “too much effort to recruit women” are the people who misunderstand the nature of the effort that’s been made. None of the people quoted as bemoaning MIT’s former problems raise worries about the effort to recruit women.

But let’s not focus on the reporting! I’d love to hear thoughts about how to improve things for women without inducing the false belief that standards are being lowered.

(Thanks, S!)

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on MIT’s gender equality efforts

  1. The title of the article is “Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors,” but the article only discusses the status of female science professors at MIT, an institution that has made extraordinary, concerted, and much-celebrated and documented efforts in this area. A reader could get the impression that their “gains and drawbacks” reflect the current experience and status of women in academia, which would be unfortunate.

  2. The drawback is even more appaling given the situation which triggered those efforts in the first place: a report on the status of faculty women in the 90s has shown (to everyone’s surprise) that female professors had to be “a couple of heads higher” than males to get on the faculty – their average “scientific value” was waaay higher than that of male professors. At the same time, it became apparent that women had much worse access to various resources than men on the faculty.

    So in a sense, the changes did indeed involve “lowering standards for women”. Lowering them from the level very much above the standards for men to a more equal level.

  3. I love Igor’s point.

    Still, I wonder if the idea that advancing women means lower standards is simply the shadow of the factors previously limiting women’s opportunities.

    Indeed, one might say that the belief that standards are lowered is a good indication of the prevailing biases. What other than bias would create that belief?

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