Last week, I learned about the 1999 Hopkins Study on the Status of
Women Faculty in Science at MIT. This was apparently a report that made huge waves at MIT, partially because the President himself acknowledged the magnitude and severity of the problem:
First, I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.
Nancy Hopkins’ personal account of her involvement with writing the report is striking in so many ways. In some ways, it feels like she could have been talking about me and my women peers: showing male colleagues bold statements only to be cautioned, steeling yourself emotionally before showing others these thoughts, looking to women who have “made it” for support only to find that they’re right there with you, the power of solidarity both to make change and also to keep you mentally healthy, the amazing similarity of women’s experiences and how we can finish each other’s stories, and so on. Some aspects, though, were different: I don’t think any socially-conscious woman and/or minority student goes into science thinking that they won’t experience any challenges these days. I also think that the recognitions that family life plays into these disparities and that the impacts of marginalization increase as women progress in their careers are much better accepted these days. That said, perhaps I am over-estimating how truly “status quo” these ideas are, since most people think about these things far less than I do…
Anyway, I highly recommend reading Hopkins’ story, and probably the report as well. To be honest though, I don’t have the heart to do so myself – I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from thinking “how does this compare to now?” and “how has MIT continued this sort of work since then?” with pessimism.
In the follow up discussion at the bottom of the account, I was struck by two comments: the first about secrecy, and the other about “just doing it.” Just last week I got into an argument with my friends about why, as an organization, it’s important to transparently and publicly commit to improving with respect to diversity (rather than just working on it behind the scenes, and “letting the results speak for themselves”). I think an important part of the results is the act of publicly valuing them, transparently, loudly, and proudly. I didn’t succeed in convincing them that having clear and public policies with respect to diversity is important, and maybe the argument isn’t evidence-based but rather just that I think it’s the right thing to do. The discussion didn’t give me any particularly new arguments here, but it was nice to see the lack of transparency called out explicitly:
The bottom line is that transparency is what is missing. What we don’t see and what the departments need to do is to explain what the rules are. There is no secret, especially in a state university. That was one of the things I found out with my lawsuit: if there are no written rules, the guys can make them up as they go along.
The other part of the discussion that made me smile was the part about asking for permission rather than forgiveness. This is one of my favorite things that I’ve learned from my advisor, actually – he’s very good at this! I also found myself flexing my “Just do what a man with your qualifications and abilities would do” muscles twice this week. First, I received an email calling for “machine learning experts” to volunteer at a DataKind event. I do not consider myself a machine learning expert by any means, but I think many men with my technical qualifications might. So I answered the call, and had a really great time at the event (where I was fully, totally, completely qualified to be there). That said, even in my email response I had to check myself to not start my email with “while I don’t have much formal machine learning experience…” And yesterday, I applied for an award that I am technically not qualified for (since my paper is not published yet) but for which I think I would be a great candidate. It was exhilarating to send my application in, and I can’t wait to see what their response is. Hopefully positive! 😛
So I think part of it is, we shouldn’t ask so much. We should just do it.