Monday, April 4, 2011

A Celebration, With Caveats

[Note: This is a copy of a post at]

One week ago MIT hosted a major symposium, Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT. Under preparation for more than a year, it was one of 6 symposia MIT selected to commemorate its 150th birthday. One week later, I remain excited by the outcome. It included the finest collection of talks across science and engineering, delivered by the greatest set of speakers, that I have ever witnessed at any conference, at MIT or elsewhere. The research presentations were given by women. A few men participated as panelists or session chairs. I was very fortunate to have been the chair of the organizing committee, and to have brought together a dream team to inspire everyone in attendance. Every MIT speaker accepted the invitation and spoke. It was the best conference I have ever attended.

The messages conveyed by this symposium are so important and have such implications for the future of science and engineering that I will be writing several blog entries about it. This first one is an overview.

The symposium had two interwoven threads. The first was the amazing research that our stellar faculty are doing - and these faculty happen to be all women. I'm very grateful to my co-organizers, especially Katrin Wehrheim of Math and Hazel Sive of Biology, for emphasizing this aspect and for helping to select the speakers. It was a superb treat to hear leaders of their fields give beautiful presentations in molecular biology, neuroscience, computer science, fluid dynamics, global ecology, gravitational physics, and more. All of us -- and the speakers themselves -- were exhilarated by the breadth and excellence of research presented. The collection of these recorded talks will be a treasure trove for students and an inspiration for girls wondering what they can achieve by pursuing science or engineering. Indeed, we were delighted that high school girls came to the symposium from as far away as Phoenix, Arizona. I hope that thousands more, and eventually millions, will watch the videos when they are posted online. If you are a young woman wondering how science or engineering can be relevant to your life, you should watch these videos!

The second thread involved the status of women faculty in science and engineering before the famous 1999 MIT report, in the years following, and looking ahead to the future. This is where the caveats to celebration arise. Nancy Hopkins gave a remarkable keynote address that made very clear how women faculty have been discriminated against and how they continue to be treated unequally to the detriment of the university and the nation. Shirley Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, gave a broad perspective on the national impact of MIT's response to gender discrimination while detailing the challenges remaining. Charles Vest, President of MIT when Nancy Hopkins and the women faculty in science first revealed inequitable treatment, gave a personal account of his transformation "from being part of the problem to being part of the solution." Two outstanding panels discussed "Recruiting, Mentoring, Retention, and Leadership" and "Shaping Policy in Academia and Across the Nation". Alumna Gioia de Cari returned to MIT -- where she had been harassed while a math graduate student two decades ago -- to give a moving performance of her solo play "Truth Values." Unfortunately, the harassment she experienced has not entirely disappeared for women today, a point I will return to in the future.

In later blog entries I'll share more about the Symposium and what it meant to me. The attendees felt that it was an historic event, one that could mark a turn in the progress towards full gender equity at MIT and elsewhere. Lately there has been a lot of interest in the business world in "disruptive innovation," a term coined by Harvard scholar Clayton Christensen. I will share some best practices discussed in the symposium and will explain why diversity, equity and inclusion appear to be a disruptive innovation with the potential to transform universities in the next decade.