Another Report on MIT’s Female Faculty by Its Female Faculty

The latest MIT report on the status of its faculty women– earlier ones appeared in 1999 and 2002–finds impressive progress and “an overwhelmingly positive view of MIT,” but the key word in the seemingly endless stream of reports on women in STEM fields, “marginalization,” inevitably pops up as well, this time in reaction to “the incorrect perception that standards of hiring and promotion are lower for women.” These faulty perceptions, the report says, “can erode the confidence of women faculty.”

At the time of the 1999 report, the new report states, “President Vest remarked to some of us that it would be relatively easy to fix resource inequities that arise from marginalization, but more difficult to prevent the marginalization that occurred as women advanced in their careers. This comment turned out to be prescient,” as evidenced by several statements from MIT women that were included and discussed. Typical was the following:

“Undergraduate women ask me how they should deal with their male classmates who tell them that they only got into MIT because of affirmative action.” This comment prompted some women to note that when they win an award or other recognition it is not uncommon for a colleague on the selection committee to say, “it was long overdue that the award be given to a woman,” indicating that gender was a significant factor in the selection. These kinds of statements deprive the awardee of the satisfaction of knowing that it was purely because of respect for her accomplishments that she got the award.

Despite “stunning progress,” the Report asserts that old-fashioned bias has not been eliminated. “Many faculty members” it laments, “commented that bias against women appears during search and hiring procedures.” In particular, “letters of recommendation for female candidates are often less enthusiastic than for a comparable male candidate.” (How it was known that the male and female candidates were “comparable” is not stated.) In any event, the deans are aware of this problem, “and search committees are therefore encouraged to read letters of recommendation for women candidates with attention to bias.”

But — and this is a major theme of the Report — measures to combat bias have created “an unwanted consequence”:

the perception that standards for hiring and promotion of women faculty are lower than for male faculty — as exemplified by the comment, “In discussions I hear others saying ‘oh, she’ll get tenure … because we need to have women.’ Makes it sound like the standards of excellence are not the same for men and women.” These perceptions are disquieting to women faculty: “I am very worried about making too much effort to recruit women, and the perception that women are not as good.”Indeed, this notion led several faculty to question whether they were hired because they were women, undermining their confidence: “I felt I was invited to interview because I was dazzling, but now I wonder…”

Indeed, this “unwanted consequence” was so prominent in the report that it led the New York Times’s coverage of it:

Among other concerns, many female professors say that M.I.T.’s aggressive push to hire more women has created the sense that they are given an unfair advantage. Those who once bemoaned M.I.T.’s lag in recruiting women now worry about what one called “too much effort to recruit women.”

I’ve often thought that the English language needs a pithy word (even an un-pithy one would do) to describe a consequence of one’s action that is  “unwanted,” unintended, but nevertheless not only entirely predictable but that was actually predicted. Clearly an overweening concern for “gender equity” is a perfect example of this unnamed phenomenon. If an institution devotes enormous efforts and resources to improve both the numbers and status of its women, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get the idea that it cares more for women than men, and that that caring is likely to have some tangible effects. (Indeed, MIT’s experience suggests that rocket scientists and their peers may have more trouble grasping this idea than others.) No one familiar with the generation-old debate over affirmative action should be surprised to learn that giving special treatment to a favored group tarnishes the accomplishments of all members of that group, even those who didn’t need the special treatment to succeed.

If women want to be treated as equals, they need to eschew special treatment. Ironically, the more they pursue “gender equity” through affirmative action and commissions and reports and special deans and offices, etc., the less likely they are to achieve it.

Finally, this Report, like an earlier MIT report asserting the importance of “diversity” that I discussed here, does not explain exactly “why increasing the numbers of women … in science is so important.” But perhaps MIT regards gender as irrelevant to diversity. Otherwise, the committees of eight faculty members from MIT’s School of Science and seven faculty members from its School of Engineering who produced this report would have included at least one man on each committee.


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