The Leaky Pipeline of Women in Science


By Meghan Sullivan

That there even was a luncheon at Crerar library last week to welcome Nancy Hopkins was a sign of progress. Speaking of a committee formed at MIT in 1995 to explore gender discrimination among tenured faculty, she commented that their meetings were generally held off campus since “having that many women in one room at MIT was so unusual that we were afraid to be seen meeting on campus…it was sure to arouse suspicion.”

Fifteen years later, the packed luncheon in the middle of Crerar was hard to miss. A few dozen women – and a few men – had gathered to discuss her work uncovering and fighting gender discrimination at MIT. More than a relaxed opportunity to ask Hopkins questions before her afternoon lecture, the lunch was a chance for graduate students and post-docs to discuss their experiences and ask for advice. While the prevalence of gender discrimination in the sciences and elsewhere tends to incite strong emotion, Hopkins carried herself with sensibility and humor that was contagious.

Hopkins, a professor of biology at MIT and accomplished cancer biologist, is the first to admit that she never intended to be a feminist. It wasn’t until pervasive and arguably unconscious barriers at MIT began to impede her research in 1995 that she took action against the status quo. Science, she pointed out, has always been touted as a meritocracy, yet she saw her female colleagues repeatedly passed over for tenure, funding, even lab space. In the early stages of her work on gender discrimination, Hopkins perused the MIT staff listings looking for other women in science. She was shocked to learn that out of 274 faculty positions, only 22 were filled by women. “I said check the back of the catalog,” she laughed, “Perhaps they list them separately.”

But why was science losing women? By the nineties the percentages of male and female graduate students in the sciences were about equal, yet that equality failed to emerge in tenured faculty positions. To explain this, Hopkins described a well-established phenomenon known as “the Leaky Pipeline.” In essence, while the proportions of male and female students entering science are comparable, women are more likely to leave (or leak out of) the scientific career path due to issues which primarily affect women.

Like many, Hopkins believed the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action policies were the answer to getting more women in science. But over the next thirty years, less obvious issues proved serious barriers, including sexual harassment, connecting with an empowering mentor, and managing a successful family-work balance. The last was especially frustrating, as high level science can often require more than 70 hours of work a week, leaving little time for family and children. As Hopkins put it, many were required to be “nuns of science,” working in an environment where talking about family and children was far from the norm.

However, it wasn’t until one of the more insidious barriers to women in science began to interfere with Hopkins work that she got involved. Called unconscious gender bias, this subconscious undervaluation of work done by women has been studied for years by psychologists. For example, when people are shown work done by a man or a woman and asked to rate it, the panel will value the man’s work over the woman’s, even if the objective quality of both is identical. Such undervaluation of women’s work not only directly impedes their progress up the academic hierarchy, but also self-selects female researchers out of science, caving to feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. As Hopkins said, she felt that “no matter what I discovered, I wouldn’t be accepted in this field.”

Rather than give up a career she’d already sacrificed so much for, Hopkins and 16 other tenured female faculty members drafted a letter to MIT’s Dean of Science at the time, Robert Birgeneau, concerning the unfair gender biases prevalent in the MIT system. Birgeneau responded immediately and impressively to the committee’s report, instituting an aggressive hiring campaign designed to recruit top female researchers from around the world. The resulting increase in the percentage of women faculty was fondly called “the Birgeneau bump.” In addition to the hiring of more women, MIT set to work on increasing day care options and set up committees that would oversee equality in working conditions and institutional policy. These institutional changes would go on to become a standard in the academic world and be adopted by institutions throughout the country.

Yet problems remain.

A common complaint among the women at the luncheon with Hopkins was they were told by male colleagues that they were awarded special honors – such as fellowships or prestigious grants – because they were women, not due to the excellence of their work. It’s a double edged sword – earning tenure and high honors, but potentially sacrificing credibility along the way.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever gotten anything just because I’m a woman. I’d take the ‘just’ out of that,” Erin Adams, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, said in an interview following the Hopkins lecture. “I think I’ve worked really, really hard and the comments I get is that there is really good science here, and since there are so few women in biochemistry and structural biology, that this is a person that should be hired.”

At present, there is no campus-wide initiative at the University of Chicago to level the gender ratios, but some departments are starting to take an initiative. In addition to independent departmental efforts, support for women faculty comes from other sources, including Martin Feder, faculty Dean of the Biological Science Division and Mary Harvey, head of UChicago’s Women’s Leadership Council. Both offices provide support to current female faculty members, including workshops, mentoring programs, and initiatives to identify reasons behind skewed gender ratios among tenured faculty. However, Adams (one of only two women faculty out of 19 total in the Department of Biochemistry) asserted that ultimately a university-wide initiative, such as the program implemented at MIT, will be necessary.

“Nancy’s talk was a great example of somebody saying, here’s a problem, we need to fix it, and we’re going to fix it by doing what we need to do, which is hiring more women,” Adams said. “Nancy is a person you can ask, ‘how do you do it?'”

The promise of change that would even the gender ratios in the University is enticing, and Adams along with other concerned faculty, both men and women, are looking forward to seeing UChicago create institutional policies for change. The cause, as Hopkins pointed out at the close of her talk, is far from over.

“The Civil Rights Act opened the doors to women, but they were invited to run a highly competitive race essentially on one foot,” Hopkins said. Rather than expect people to be grateful for the chance to apply, institutions should start asking, “What do we still need to do to see the full inclusion and full participation of the most talented, most qualified people, regardless of gender?”

About Rob Mitchum (523 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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