First published May 2, 2005 - More info
While speaking at an academic conference on January 14, 2005, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested that innate biological differences between men and women might be one reason for the paucity of women math and science professors. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), walked out upon hearing this remark. Both Summers’ comments and Hopkins’ reaction have received significant publicity and undergone much scrutiny.
Hopkins is an accomplished molecular biologist, but it is her pioneering role in fostering gender equity in academia for which many have come to know her. At the start of her career, Hopkins assumed that so few women worked in science because they wanted families and thus opted out of the 80-hour work week she associated with a successful career in the lab. Hopkins herself married young, but was divorced by 30 and decided not to have children. Early on, Hopkins repeatedly observed men and women equally accomplished in the lab, but noticed that they were not treated the same by colleagues. She did not see women as chairmen or as speakers, nor did she see women faculty with administrative power.
Hopkins says she was in denial about the situation and just worked harder until one particular event, 20 years into her career, opened her eyes. When she needed an additional 200 square feet of lab space, Hopkins started measuring nearby labs with a tape measure and realized that, as a full professor, she had much less space than her male counterparts and also lacked the power to get what she needed. She set out to remedy the situation.
In 1995, Hopkins was appointed chair of the first Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT. At the time, there were 194 male faculty in the school, compared with 17 female. An extensive investigation by the committee was released in 1999 and sparked a flurry of attention when it was published in the Boston Globe and the New York Times. The committee found that women faculty tended to leave after tenure because they felt they were not part of the system in the same way as their male colleagues. The women tended to work alone, were not part of group grants, and were not in administrative positions. Interestingly, half of the women were unmarried without children, while nearly all their male counterparts had families. The committee concluded that MIT was experiencing unintentional gender bias.
MIT responded by recruiting more women faculty, both to the university and to administrative positions. The university established gender equity committees chaired by senior female faculty to review salary data and interview the faculty. The president also established a Council on Faculty Diversity, which establishes institutional policies regarding such issues as hiring and family leave. Altogether, MIT created 11 committees to infiltrate the university structure. As a result, and in only 6 years, the number of women science faculty has nearly doubled, while the number of women faculty in engineering has undergone an almost 5-fold increase. MIT has become a model for recognizing, acknowledging, and rectifying gender bias.
On March 25, 2005, Hopkins gave her first talk since the now-infamous Summers comment. Hopkins said she felt “like we turned the clock back 40 years” when Summers said that innate aptitude differences between men and women may be to blame for the dearth of women engineers, scientists, and mathematicians in advanced faculty positions. She said she “couldn’t sit there and take it” and “that it was morally wrong to listen” to Summers’s dismissal of the existence of gender discrimination after all the research that she and others had done. In reference to Rosalind Franklin, Hopkins joked, “If you discover the structure of DNA, you win the Nobel prize, right? Well, depends who you are.”
Hopkins’s response to Summers is timely in light of a study recently published in Nature, which examines the complete sequence of the X chromosome (1). A companion paper in the same issue (2) shows that the second X chromosome — found only in women and thought to be silent — actually expresses many genes. Interestingly, different women express different genes from this “silent” chromosome, and do so at different levels. The two papers explain why men and women are biologically different, and why women are different from each other. The papers do not, however, lend any credence to the concept that innate aptitude differences exist between the sexes.