Tarnishes Its Reputation with Gender ‘Junk Science’
Do Women Still Need ‘Special Protection?’
My father, an MIT scholarship boy, took great pride in his Class of ‘33 ring. The "Brass Rat," as the ring is affectionately called, was never off his finger. The beaver, nature’s engineer, stands in the center and MIT’s Great Dome, patterned on the Pantheon, juts out from the sides. His ring is mine now, resized to fit my finger.
My father was fond of a maxim, which he learned at MIT and which he impressed on me: "The truth will out and the truth is best."
In this spirit, because the "the truth is best," because we make wiser decisions when we attend to realities, l examine the study, "Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT," published in March, 1999.
The "study" confessed to unintentional gender discrimination against female professors by MIT. Indeed, a message from MIT’s President Charles M. Vest introduces the study: "I commend this study of Women Faculty in Science to all of my faculty colleagues. Please read it, contemplate its messages and information, and act upon it personally and collectively."
The story of gender discrimination by one of America’s most distinguished universities was featured in newspapers across the country. The conclusions, accepted without critical comment, received front-page coverage in The New York Times.
MIT professor Nancy Hopkins, whose complaints instigated the study and who, despite being the complainant, chaired the investigatory committee evaluating her own complaints, was invited to the White House where President and Mrs. Clinton praised her courage and expressed their hopes that MIT would serve as a model for universities across the nation in its confession of gender discrimination and its attention to improvement in the treatment of women faculty.
Their hopes are being fulfilled: "The California Institute of Technology, Case Western Reserve University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Arizona, and the University of California at Los Angeles [are] among those that plan to study gender equity," says the Chronicle of Higher Education, reporting on the "new movement" that the MIT study spawned.
"It was data-driven and that’s a very MIT thing," bragged Robert J. Birgeneau, Dean of the School of Science at MIT, to The New York Times. Contrary to his assertion, this study is not "data-driven" – based on empirical evidence with alternative explanations examined. The "study" is a political tract.
1. The MIT study on gender discrimination falls below basic standards for scientific evidence in the social sciences.
2. A confidential source at MIT, quite close to the committee that examined the complaints and produced the study, says that the committee found no gender discrimination. Where scientists disagree, the scientific community debates the evidence. But MIT will not release the data, making the absurd claim that such data as sex differences in laboratory space is "confidential."
3. The single piece of hard evidence that the study offers as proof of gender discrimination is the greater number of males on the faculty of MIT’s School of Science. But a gender imbalance does not equal gender discrimination. Why a gender imbalance continues in such fields as mathematics and the physical sciences, while such fields as law or biology are reaching gender parity, is an interesting scientific question. Evidence for the answer is discussed below. The discrimination explanation is among the least plausible.
MIT has produced a political manifesto masquerading as science, an ideological tract draped in the robes of MIT’s international prestige. The MIT Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science is junk science which tarnishes MIT’s international reputation.
What the Report Really Shows
The study begins, "In the summer of 1994, three tenured women faculty in the School of Science began to discuss the quality of their professional lives at MIT."
It continues, "In the course of their careers these women had come to realize that gender had probably caused their professional lives to differ significantly from those of their male colleagues...It was soon clear to the women that their experiences formed a pattern."
The incident that sparked these discussions was a demand for additional laboratory space by Professor Nancy Hopkins in the Biology Department. Space wars are the stuff of daily life at thriving universities, regardless of the gender of the combatants. As professors acquire research contracts, they often require more space. More senior professors typically have staked out more space. Professors can be quite ferocious in their demands for space and they can be furious when they lose these battles. When Professor Hopkins lost her bid for more laboratory space, she sought out other tenured women to see if they were similarly aggrieved.
Junior Female Faculty Disagree
"The problems were universal regardless of School or academic discipline," states the study. Was this conclusion "data driven," as the Dean claimed? To the extent the data is disclosed, the study shows the opposite. We learn in the "First Report of the Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science, 1996" (an earlier document appended to the 1999 study), that the problems were not "universal" at all. To the contrary, "considerable variation in departments was found." Buried in an appendix to the report are these telling points:
• Junior women faculty felt that men and women on the faculty were treated equally in terms of resources, salary, and other material benefits. Most felt supported by their departments in their scientific endeavors;
• Five of the six departments in the School of Science had tenured women faculty (the exception is Mathematics). In two of these departments, the senior women reported no personal discrimination or other gender equity problems;
• Senior women alone in the remaining three departments perceived marginalization or gender equity problems (no objective data is presented in support of these claims).
Thus the "universal problem" of gender discrimination at MIT comes down to the subjective perceptions of a small and unrepresentative group – the senior women in just three of the six departments at MIT’s School of Science.
Moreover, even this study of subjective perceptions was not carried out according to established scientific practice.
A study of perceptions adhering to accepted scientific methods would include, at least in an appendix, the wording of the questions that were asked and a table showing the numbers of women expressing particular attitudes.
Unstructured conversations, such as the Committee appears to have conducted with the female faculty in the School of Science, could also be evaluated by appropriate scientific procedures. To evaluate unstructured conversations, a codebook of alternative responses is created. Coders are trained to reach an acceptable level of agreement (typically 80 percent) in evaluating the responses and placing them into defined categories. (One category might be "person perceived discrimination against female professors." Another category might be "person perceived marginalization but no blatant discrimination.")
The MIT report provides no indication that such elementary scientific steps were followed. Nor were male faculty members polled to see if similar proportions felt unfairly treated. No matter. The study treats the feelings of small numbers of senior women as evidence of gender discrimination.
The study deals with the difficulty that most junior women did not perceive gender discrimination by asserting that many of the senior women also felt supported as younger faculty. MIT’s president Charles Vest in his introductory remarks tells us that he "sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said, ‘I also felt very positive when I was young.’"
But this is a breach of logic – the assumption that junior women will change in their views because the senior women say they did. In scientific terms, this is a confusion between the conclusions that can be drawn from cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis. The junior women and senior women at MIT come from two different generations. To say that MIT’s junior women are going to be like MIT’s senior women is like saying that today’s young women are going to age just like their mothers did.
Perceptions of discrimination are evidence of nothing but subjective feelings.
To be "data driven...a very MIT thing," a study needs facts bearing on these feelings. The slights and feelings of marginalization some of the senior women at MIT experienced might be due to any number of factors such as departmental factions, personality conflicts, mistaken impressions. Indeed, the fact that so few of the untenured women faculty perceived problems is in itself suspect and a telling sign of the weakness of perceptions as a source of evidence. Anxieties about tenure and the approval of male colleagues could have prevented the junior women from speaking out. The point is that feelings are at best untrustworthy indications of facts. The study does not even provide the most minimal facts – the numbers of tenured and untenured women who expressed particular sentiments. Such data would be necessary in a student paper, let alone a study by a great scientific institution.
Mostly Women Who Complained
The Committee itself was curious in its composition. The Chair and two-thirds of the committee members were senior women, interested parties, who would personally profit from a finding of gender discrimination and they did profit – they were given raises and other resources.
The chair was Professor Nancy Hopkins herself, the very professor whose claims of unfairness had led to the study (she got a pay raise of 20 percent, an endowed chair, triple the laboratory space, research funds, and numerous other benefits). We learn that the committee was "composed of a single tenured woman from each of the six departments in Science (except Mathematics since there were and still are no tenured women faculty in math) plus three senior male faculty." These were the same women who sent the proposal to the Dean to create the committee. Their beliefs were firmly in place at the outset. Their initial proposal to create the committee states their later conclusion, "We believe that unequal treatment of women who come to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed." In short, the senior women at MIT’s School of Science were judge and jury of their own complaint.
Political influences destroyed any pretense of objectivity. "A particularly important aspect of how the Committee operated was that no substantive letter, memo, or report was written, and no important action taken without seeking the participation and advice of all the tenured women faculty in Science." Male faculty members were not afforded the same courtesy of consultation.
The Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science MIT boils down to a political process, not a scientific inquiry. But MIT denied this was politics, not science. "Give us convincing data, and we go with it," said President Charles Vest to Professor Nancy Hopkins, explaining why he was so quick to accept the report. "It’s the scientific mindset."
The MIT mindset on display is political, not scientific. Politics has its rewards:
Today, six years after she first complained of unequal treatment, and eight months after MIT released a stunning report acknowledging discrimination against female scientists, Ms. Hopkins’s career has taken off.
Her 5,000-square-foot lab buzzes with activity, as two dozen graduate students tend to the 150,000 zebrafish that she uses in her DNA research. She has been given an endowed chair, and financial support for her work has reached $2.5 million a year – much of the money given to the institute by Amgen, a leading biotechnology company.
In the fall of 1999, Professor Hopkins was made a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, according to this front-page story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The career of Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science who championed the study, also progressed nicely. "Hero" is the label under his photograph in the November 12, 1999 issue of Science describing events at MIT. Less than a year after the study was released, the University of Toronto announced his appointment as the university’s 14th president. One of his credentials, according to the University of Toronto’s press release, was that he had "led a pioneering study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT."
Dean Birgeneau describes the meeting in his conference room, where the senior women related their accounts of condescension from male faculty and their frustrations over resources, as "akin to a religious experience."
But Dean Birgeneau, at least in his role as Dean of the School of Science at MIT, should have been having not a "religious experience" but a scientific one. The study of attribution processes and of attribution errors is a well-established area of research. The senior women at MIT attributed perceived slights and perceptions of inequity to gender discrimination. Most university faculty, male or female, could easily come up with similar accounts of slights, lack of recognition for their accomplishments, and unfair treatment. The scientific question is whether gender discrimination is the empirical basis for the feelings of the senior women at MIT.
Lack of Hard Data
While there are dark references to gender differences in salary, space, and other resources, no actual data are presented in support of any of these claims. Not only is quantitative data missing. Scientific procedures for qualitative case analysis do not appear to have been followed – the standard procedure for dealing with small numbers of cases.
When I requested data on gender differences in space, hardly a confidential matter, no MIT official would provide the information. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Professor Hopkins "took a tape measure to individual offices, examined floor plans, and determined that, on average, men in the biology department were given 3,000 square feet of space, while women were given 2,000 square feet." But these appear to be informal measurements by an interested party to a dispute.
Differences in space allocation, as previously discussed, often come about through differences in seniority. The tenured women in MIT’s Biology Department are less senior than the tenured men – approximately five years younger in "professional age" (years since they received their Ph.D.). This difference in professional age is understandable, given the lack of scientific opportunities afforded to an earlier generation of women and their later entry into the sciences. It is also a possible explanation for differences in space and other resources.
The only hard data the study actually offers is the decreasing numbers of women from the undergraduate to the faculty level in each department of the School of Science. We learn that the numbers of male and female undergraduates are about equal in the Department of Biology in 1994–indeed women (147) have a slight advantage over men (142). More women than men are also undergraduates in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Science and in Chemistry. Only the departments of physics and mathematics show substantial gender disparity among undergraduates.
True, only eight percent of the faculty in the School of Science at MIT in 1994 were women. But several explanations other than institutional gender discrimination could account for these numbers. One explanation is sex differences in career choices. Another explanation is that many gifted female scientists are at an earlier stage in their scientific careers. The young women now pouring into such fields as biology require time to make the discoveries and achieve the stature that will put them on the faculty of a distinguished institution such as MIT.
A sea change occurred in the gender composition of the professoriate, beginning in the early 1970s. Due to the women’s movement and to the ending of graduate student deferments for young men at the height of the Vietnam War, women became welcome in graduate schools. But the bulk of the professoriate at MIT and other institutions are males who gained their positions before the 1970s and, due to tenure, are still in place. Saying there is discrimination against MIT female professors today, based on the percentage of males educated and hired 30 to 50 years ago, is like saying it’s a cold day in June based on the temperature last December.
No evidence, no matter.
Uncritical Media Acceptance
"MIT Admits Discrimination Against Female Professors" shouted the headline of the New York Times story (March 23, 1999). "In an extraordinary admission, top officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most prestigious science and engineering university in the country, have issued a report acknowledging that female professors here suffer from pervasive, if unintentional discrimination."
The New York Times went on to editorialize on March 28, 1999:
"Hard evidence of this phenomenon [gender bias] is found in a new report on women on the science faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which boasts one of the most prestigious faculties in the world...MIT is certainly not alone in this problem. But it has confronted this reality boldly and is taking steps to correct the inequities and improve hiring practices. Beyond that, the study has significant social value because it documents with unusual clarity how pervasive and destructive discrimination can be even when there is no blatant harassment or intimidation."
The media blitz that ensued brought virtually universal applause for Hopkins and for MIT. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Hopkins declared outright victory. She had good reason. "A number of senior women who had been underpaid received salary increases; several women who had not received discretionary funds from the administration for years got money for research; some women got more space; and some got funds for renovations of their labs or offices," Hopkins tells us.
Only a few cautious, let alone dissenting, voices were heard. "Cleansed of telling detail, the report offers only vague observations and conclusions," pointed out veteran Science reporter Constance Holden. Male faculty at MIT have remained publicly silent on the issue, noted USA Today.
Even a professor of humanities, a nonscientist like Camille Paglia, found it easy to identify the elementary scientific errors in the MIT report:
"Where is the comparative data to demonstrate that the professional accomplishments of the aggrieved MIT women were in fact equal or superior to those of their male colleagues who enjoyed preferential treatment? The fact that 40 percent of the tenured female science faculty are members of the National Academy of Sciences or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is immaterial if we know nothing about the credentials of their male peers."
In fact, whether the complaining women had credentials equal or superior to that of the men is open to doubt. Despite their claims to be "exceptional" because they are "pioneers" who have broken through "enormous barriers," the MIT senior women are far from exceptional by MIT standards. In an independent study examining this claim, "Frontier Women at MIT: Attempting a Replication," Baruch School of Public Affairs Professor James F. Guyot found about the same proportion of senior females (32%) compared to senior males (34%) who are members of the National Academy of Sciences or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Note: Guyot’s analysis was done from published lists of members available prior to the furor following the MIT report and the subsequent elevation of Nancy Hopkins to membership in the National Academy of Science.)
What is most interesting is that, in the Biology Department, where professor Nancy Hopkins complained of "marginalization," the difference in scientific stature in favor of males is large – only 38 percent of the senior MIT female faculty had been elected to these organizations compared to 55 percent of the senior males. MIT senior women in biology hardly appear at all in the especially prestigious National Academy of Sciences (13%) while almost half of the senior men in the Biology Department (45%) had been elected to membership.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that the MIT study was so weak that it would not be accepted as evidence of gender discrimination in a court of law:
"To evaluate discrimination at MIT, one would expect to see details of brilliant female professors being turned down for tenure on the basis of their sex, complete with salary documentation, publications records, estimates of quality of research, information on teaching ability and administrative skills. Rigorous analysis of such data is commonplace in court cases. But none of this information appears."
Because MIT has not released the underlying data that it claims supports the report, there can not be any verification or falsification of its scientific claims.
The Statistical Assessment Service, a watchdog organization that exposes junk science in the media, was highly skeptical. The MIT Report claims to have investigated systematically differences in salary and other resources, said STATS, but fails to present any data to support conclusions of inequality, let alone gender discrimination. According to STATS, the few reporters who asked to see the data were "rebuffed" and the data was even kept secret from the MIT faculty.
MIT Will Not Release Any Data
That MIT is keeping scientific data secret is a serious allegation in the scientific world. To check this charge, I sent e-mail to a few faculty members on the Committee with a courteous request to see the data. I explained I was writing a piece on the study and did not want to report the charges of the Statistical Assessment Service if these were not true. I also made repeated telephone inquiries to MIT officials and to Dean Robert J. Birgeneau. No one returned my inquiries (except to refer me to somebody else) with the exception of Professor Nancy Hopkins herself, who replied with promptness and courtesy but with no information. Confidentiality, even in releasing lab space data, she said in her e-mail communication, was important because "it is the women whom we must protect to be ethical and fair." Since more than a quarter of the senior women in MIT’s School of Science were listed by name as committee members and the others could easily be identified from lists of MIT faculty by department, asserting a need for "confidentiality" as grounds for not releasing data is peculiar and in itself grounds for suspicion.
Why would it be necessary to keep secret such facts as square feet of lab space allocated to women and square feet allocated to men? There is no legitimate reason for secrecy. Science depends on disclosure of the data on which claims are based.
Gender discrimination may or may not exist at MIT or at other universities. But what we have in this report is not science. It is junk science.
Confidential Source: No Discrimination Found
A confidential source at MIT, willing to reveal what actually happened if not identified by name, provides a very different view of what the Committee investigating the status of female professors at MIT actually found.
"The committee was set up in response to a feeling by some women faculty that they weren’t terribly happy, " this source said. "It was true that they weren’t happy. It was true and being true it was a problem. Every organization would like its senior people to be happy.
"The mandate of the committee was to explore, to try to find the reasons, to see how it could be corrected. I developed serious respect for them. They [the women faculty at MIT] were serious scientists, not the product of any relaxation [of standards].
"Heroic efforts were made to get statistics but a lot of this information was hard to gather, like who had what space. There was insufficient data from any of these sources to determine anything in particular. Nobody can make judgments anyway with such a small number of people doing such totally different things."
No gender discrimination was actually found, according to this source. But to increase the senior women’s satisfaction ("to throw them a bone"), they were given additional benefits, such as salary increases. This effort backfired: The senior women interpreted their raises as evidence of discrimination. Why would they be getting raises if they had not been discriminated against in the past? Now they wanted back pay.
"What about all the money they didn’t get before? It never occurred to people that raising their salaries would raise their resentment."
Why did MIT come out with a report confessing to gender discrimination if the institution had no firm evidence supporting this contention? My source had a speculation – to prevent embarrassment to the Biology Department.
Due to an earlier controversy involving the removal of a male faculty member, factions had developed in the Biology Department. The department head was not speaking to some faculty – an embarrassing situation. The Biology Department was still recovering from a high-profile controversy over one of its members. Nobel laureate David Baltimore had been accused of publishing and later defending a paper containing data allegedly forged by a colleague, Dr. Imanishi-Kari – a case under intense investigation and spotlighted by the media for over ten years. The National Institute of Health finally cleared Dr. Baltimore and Dr. Imanishi-Kari of accusations of scientific misconduct. The Biology Department did not need another problem.
"What I suspect is that the Dean traded off no mention in the report of administrative problems in the Biology Department for an admission of general wrongdoing on the part of the institution," said this source.
For those familiar with academic politics, this account of events and motives comes as no surprise. Since Dean Birgeneau did not return repeated telephone calls, I cannot include his response to this alternate account of the Committee’s work. Interpretations can differ, and it seems likely that the different participants on the Committee have their own interpretations of highly ambiguous data not subjected to rigorous analysis.
Did MIT find gender discrimination? We have only the undocumented claims of a Committee that alleges it did. We have no hard data on gender differences in space, prizes, departmental awards, or salaries, analyzed with attention to alternative explanations such as differences in the seniority of male and female faculty. We do not even have soft data on perceptions of discrimination. This would seem to show from what can be pieced together from the published report that a majority of the women in the School of Science at MIT do not feel either discriminated against or marginalized.
Women’s Right to Choose and to Respect for their Choices
Ideologies which portray gender differences in any field as tantamount to gender discrimination are deeply troubling because they threaten freedom of choice and respect for worthy choices. Many gifted young women are resisting the cultural pressures of the 1990s to seek careers in mathematics and the physical sciences when these fields fit neither their interests, nor their greatest talents, nor their values. We should not be sending these young women the message that they are less worthy human beings, less valuable to our civilization, lazy or low in status, if they choose to be teachers rather than mathematicians, journalists rather than physicists, lawyers rather than engineers.
Equalizing the numbers of women and men in mathematics and the physical sciences is turning into an evangelical mission that threatens to undermine science itself. The "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT" with its secret data, shrill rhetoric, and shoddy analysis tarnishes the reputation of a distinguished scientific institution. The silence by scientists who know better testifies to the spirit of McCarthyism that is invading scientific inquiry. We are grateful for the admissions of a confidential source who knows the details of the MIT committee’s deliberations and tells us that the committee actually found no clear evidence of gender discrimination.
When students graduate from MIT, they turn their rings around on their fingers so that the MIT mascot, the beaver, looks back. My father, looking back, would have been sad to see what is passing for science these days at MIT. But I know just what he would have said, "The truth will out and the truth is best."