Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Tape Measure

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

During the summer of 1994, MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins realized that, unlike her male colleagues, she was not given sufficient lab space needed to conduct her research. When she asked for lab space data to support her request, it was not made available. So with a small tape measure she measured her lab space and that of several cooperative male faculty members. She found that her space was much less and asked administrators for help. Progress was slow. She consulted with other women science faculty at MIT, which quickly revealed a pattern of unequal treatment. With the support of Dean Robert Birgeneau and President Charles Vest, a committee was formed to investigate the status and equitable treatment of women faculty in science at MIT. The committee gathered data, interviewed the senior women faculty, and reported to the Dean in 1996. A public report was released in 1999. This “MIT Report” started a wave of changes in the analysis of and response to gender inequity in research universities nationwide. It was one of the most important events at MIT and for women in science and engineering during the last several decades.

I have been fortunate to get to know and to work with Nancy Hopkins and many other MIT women faculty members during the last year as we prepared for a major symposium on women in science and engineering that was held at the end of March, 2011. It was exciting to contribute to this celebration and to play a small role as catalyst for a new report assessing the change in the status of women faculty during the last decade and making recommendations for further steps needed for gender equity. This was one of the most satisfying experiences of my faculty career. Nancy’s tape measure has shown me that the strength of a community, an institution, and even an individual often resides in our ability for self-reflection and change. Who wants to use the tape measure next?

Ed Bertschinger