Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze

Caution: new blogger at work! I'm a theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist at MIT and currently head of the Physics Department. I'm passionate about mentoring and increasing diversity in academia. I seek to make my institution a better place to work and study for everyone. It's a delight to share ideas and experiences with others working also for the health of the profession and those drawn to it. I relax with running, birdwatching and cooking. I have another blog at I'm excited to start blogging for Women in Astronomy!
Last weekend I saw, for the second time, Truth Values -- a wonderful solo play by actress Gioia De Cari, who as a math graduate student at MIT in the 1980s experienced a relentless series of slights and insults before finally calling it quits with a Master’s degree. She pursued a career in acting and might have given up telling her riveting story if Lawrence Summers had not inspired her with his remarks about innate gender differences in 2005.
De Cari’s story is a perfect example of how the accumulation of inequities and injustices leads to loss in the PhD pipeline. From being hit upon by her fellow graduate students after she told them she’s married, to being directed to serve cookies to the math seminar, to being treated inhumanely after her father’s death, she described many experiences leaving me feeling sad, angry, and even helpless. Yet the play is also full of laughter and human spirit, the product, perhaps, of long introspection. I found myself wondering how much of this mistreatment is still going on? Yes, we and our students tell each other it’s much better now. Yet I still hear about graduate students who are falsely told that they were admitted “because you’re a woman”.
This time I was one of the after-performance conversation leaders, together with a MIT senior double majoring in Nuclear Science and Engineering and Physics. The success and leadership of this student shows that we’ve come a long way, yet she, too, has received discouragement from a faculty member. When asked by an audience member what things I or the Physics Department had done to improve the situation for women, I remarked that enumerating a few steps is completely insufficient. One must transform the culture and we aim to do this a hundred different ways. I used to keep track of them, but it all boils down to one thing: Care for people. We must create a scientific community of excellence that values our community members as much as we value excellence.
Gioia De Cari’s response to her mistreatment has been to tell her story to packed audiences around the country – I encourage you to see it. Our response must be to create a culture of respect, dignity and encouragement for everyone.

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