Murky facts in MIT study


DAYS AFTER NINE leading universities announced an effort to eradicate inequities against women faculty in science and engineering, more questions are swirling about the 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on the status of women that inspired this initiative. In response to charges of flawed methodology and elusive evidence, some MIT women are saying the report shouldn't be judged as a scientific study since it was only "a self-evaluation."

Yet the MIT report was treated as newsworthy and authoritative because it was seen as a real study from a top scientific institution. Robert Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, told The New York Times, "It was data-driven, and that's a very MIT thing."

As we now know, the data were not disclosed—a fact absent from most of the initial press coverage. What's more, some circumstances surrounding the origins of the study may be as murky as its findings.

The revolt of the MIT women, which spurred the bias investigation, started in 1994 when biologist Nancy Hopkins decided to write to the administration about her perceived ill-treatment and was joined in her protest by other senior female professors. While Hopkins's complaint was prompted partly by her battle for lab space, the last straw, according to media accounts, was the loss of a course she had created.

But these accounts contain major discrepancies. According to US News & World Report, MIT "dropped a popular course [Hopkins] had founded, while allowing her male co-instructor to develop a book and CD-ROM based on the class." According to Science magazine, "a course she had developed was taken over by other [male] professors." Each version, with minor variations, appeared in several reports.

Hopkins has never identified the course or the offending male(s), and MIT has refused to comment. MIT course catalogues, however, are accessible in the school library. These records show that a graduate-level course in animal virology that Hopkins had co-taught for several years was indeed canceled in 1994; but it had been offered at MIT long before Hopkins was involved. In spring 1983, Hopkins did teach a new undergraduate course in experimental molecular biology—with three other, male professors. She taught it only one more term; in 1985, nine years before her complaint, it was "taken over" by one of her co-instructors and another male faculty member. In 1996, several MIT biologists (one of whom had briefly co-taught the course) published a book and a CD-ROM on the same subject.

Two weeks ago, I e-mailed Hopkins for clarification. She politely refused, citing confidentiality. What mattered, Hopkins wrote, was the bigger issue of gender bias which critics of the MIT study were trying to deny. "The particular events are almost irrelevant," she added. "If it had not been those—it would have been others."

While Hopkins's grievance wasn't part of the MIT study, it was widely used in the media as a symbol of the wrongs of women scientists. Hopkins became a feminist heroine, hailed by her supporters as a modern-day Joan of Arc and invited to meet Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Maybe she really was wronged, whether or not it was gender-based (academics say it's not unusual for a professor to "appropriate" another's course); maybe there really was systemic sex discrimination at MIT. But the facts remain cloaked in layers of myth.

Ultimately, these myths can be damaging to female scientists. Taken too far, gender awareness can turn into a hypersensitivity to real or imagined slights that can only drain one's mental energy.

It can also exacerbate certain forms of gender bias mentioned by several women professors I interviewed: some male professors' lesser comfort with female colleagues and the perception that women's promotions and honors are due to gender rather than merit. What else can come of such proposed ways to boost the ranks of women faculty as financial incentives for hiring women or "target of opportunity" hiring in which women candidates don't compete with men in an open search?

In a way, Hopkins's experience is a cautionary tale. Although her once-stalled career has been revived, she told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1999 that she feared she would "never be known as a great scientist who did it on her own." It will be tragic if, thanks to the "equity" initiatives spurred by the MIT study, a generation of women scientists has to grapple with such doubts.

Correction: In last week's column, Pamela Bjorkman was described as an astronomer at Caltech. She is a biologist.