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The exceptions : Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the fight for women in science

When she was a reporter for the Boston Globe Kate Zernike wrote the breaking story that the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had discriminated against women faculty, at all levels.  Based on meticulous research this book is an in-depth analysis of what took place and how sixteen women, each of whom thought they were the exception to unfair treatment, came together to realize that each of them had been treated unfairly. Over four years Zernike conducted interviews, used archival material that included letters, university reports, oral histories, videos, yearbooks, photographs, and “thousands of pages of Nancy Hopkins’s papers, including diaries, datebooks, personal communications, records of the meetings that began with the women in the summer of 1994, and the color-coded floor plans." In many ways this is a recounting of events that should alert everyone who is interested in equality in education, specifically in scientific research and exploration. Despite the current encouragement for girls to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), we are far from having achieved a level playing field for everyone.  The focus of the book, Dr. Nancy Hopkins, was an exception because she was an unlikely leader to spearhead a protest, but was caught in a watershed moment that became an important part of academic and feminist history. She was a brilliant, exceptionally hardworking molecular geneticist and cancer researcher, who loved doing research more than anything.

At universities and research institutions competition has always existed, with faculty vying for tenure, for positions as department heads, committee chairs and awards. However in the world of science and scientific research the issue of gender discrimination has been a long suppressed problem. In the scientific fields women were stereotyped as not having the mental capacity and/or emotional stability to study and do the required work. If any woman proved she was capable of working and advancing in certain professions it was thought that she could not be very feminine. At a time when marriage, motherhood and homemaking were of prime importance, if a women was not married with a family, that was yet another strike against her. And, add yet another reason not to promote or hire a married woman was that if married she would inevitably have children, and this would distract her from doing an adequate job. A woman who was educated and qualified for research, teaching positions and advancements at universities was in a no-win situation. Over the years there were many qualified women who left the scientific disciplines to find jobs and work gratification elsewhere.

Most women did their best to maintain whatever positions they had at universities, working more than twice as hard as their male counterparts, and did not complain at all, even when treated unfairly. Dr. Hopkins was doing major research at MIT, yet was assigned an office and laboratory that was less than adequate in size and equipment. When she asked for more space and it was denied, she found it necessary to physically measure the assigned spaces that her male colleagues had, in order to provide evidence that there was a discrepancy. In addition women endured sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Zernike provides specific examples. In the documentary film Picture a scientist, there are interviews with Dr. Hopkins, and the other women faculty members involved in the formal complaint against MIT. Plus, there are interviews with other women who are currently active in the scientific community, who have also had to put-up-with-and-shut-up-with harassment. At least until they had achieved some type of academic position where they thought there would be no retribution.

What emerges from Kate Zernike’s book is a history of unfair and inequitable treatment of women in many areas of science. When the sixteen women at MIT worked together they were able to make changes in the administration of that university, which caused other universities to examine their practices. Administered policies were changed. It takes time and effort to change attitudes that were, and still are, deeply entrenched in chiefly male dominated disciplines.  Even though correct practices have been put into place, it is incumbent upon those people who work in the sciences to chip away at the social milieu that still exists.  As with any stereotyping, which is an implicit part of discrimination, it will take time and attention to make changes. It is well worth it.  As Dr. Hopkins and other women have stated, all the time that was spent in justifying their existence as valued members of the scientific community could have been spent actually doing more of the scientific work that they truly loved and were committed to doing.