Female Favoritism At MIT?

At MIT, efforts to recruit and retain female faculty have produced big gains. But now women face another obstacle: the perception that the school's trying too hard to help them.

Kate Zernicke of the Times reports on the results of a historic process that began in 1999, when female faculty members approached MIT's administration with evidence of institutionalized bias. Now, after a concerted effort by the university, the percentage of women on the faculty and in leadership roles has greatly increased — the school even has a female president, Susan Hockfield (pictured, left). And previous inequalities in areas like lab space and salaries have been rectified. But there's a new problem: women now have to deal with the allegations that they've received an unfair advantage. A new report on gender at the school has found, according to Zernicke, "the perception that correcting bias means lowering standards for women." And, she writes,

[W]omen now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.

Prof. Marc Kastner, dean of MIT's School of Science, says, "No one is getting tenure for diversity reasons, because the women themselves feel so strongly that the standards have to be maintained." But in terms of the new perception that women are getting an unfair leg up, he says, "The more fundamental issues are societal and M.I.T. can't solve them on its own." It's true that many efforts to correct bias result in the kind of backlash MIT's experiencing — that "you only got in because of affirmative action" dig is a perennial favorite on many campuses. And unfortunately, sometimes attitudes take longer to change than policies.

MIT may have doubled its number of female professors, but it seems it still has faculty and students whose image of a "real" scientist is male. This is sad, but given the speed of the university's transformation — says engineering professor Lorna Gibson, "I never dreamed we'd make this much progress in 10 years" — it's hardly surprising. Over time, women on the faculty will hopefully become familiar enough that they'll be seen as equals, rather than interlopers who must have needed extra help to pass into a male domain. But Kastner's right that the university also needs help from the country as a whole, which still tends to cling to the beliefs that women can't do science, and — more broadly and damagingly — that the old systems that favored white men over any other group were actually fair.

Gains, And Drawbacks, For Female Professors [NYT]