News of the WeekWOMEN IN SCIENCE

Progress on Hiring Women Science Faculty Members Stalls at MIT

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Science  21 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5772, pp. 347-348
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5772.347a

The number of women faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge has declined or remained flat in five of its six science departments since 2000, whereas the number of women in other areas, such as engineering and architecture, increased significantly during the same period, according to a report released last week. The findings, say academics researching the issue, underscore the difficulty in removing obstacles for female scientists, despite high-level attention by some deans and administrators.

MIT kicked off a nationwide debate in 1999 following publication of a study highly critical of the university's treatment of women scientists (Science, 12 November 1999, p. 1272). That study prompted a host of personnel and policy changes at MIT and also led other research institutions across the country to examine their own policies. So when MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who chaired the committee that produced that initial report, compiled the most recent statistics, “I couldn't believe my eyes; I dropped my pencil,” she says.

Sliding scale.

After rising in the late 1990s, the number of women in most MIT science departments dropped.

SOURCE: MIT

In a paper in MIT's most recent faculty newsletter, Hopkins tracks a spike in the hiring of women scientists at MIT between 1996, when the initial findings of her committee were presented to then-dean of science Robert Birgeneau, and 2000, when Birgeneau resigned. From 2000 to 2006, however, the percentage of women increased only in the chemistry department. In biology, brain and cognitive sciences, and earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, the percentage decreased, although in physics it remained flat. The story is radically different, however, in the engineering department and in the school of architecture and planning, where the number of women nearly doubled in the past 5 years.

Birgeneau's successor, Robert Silbey, says he agrees with Hopkins that MIT has “failed to sustain that initial push,” which brought 13 new faculty members into the sciences between 1996 and 2000. “And I'm not happy about it.” But he notes that a dozen women scientists were hired between 2000 and 2005, only one less than during Birgeneau's watch. The decreases within departments, Silbey says, are largely due to female faculty members leaving after failing to win tenure or for other reasons. (Nearly half of all junior faculty members, male and female, do not receive MIT tenure.) “Department heads in science are committed to gender diversity, but sustained progress is difficult,” he adds. Silbey also notes that he has appointed women to various leadership positions, and that three of the 10 members of MIT's science council are female.

But Hopkins argues that recruitment of distinguished women scientists needs to be more aggressive at the level of the individual science department. “The standard hiring process does not work,” she says. Indeed, the pattern found by Hopkins “is really not surprising,” says Alice Hogan, who heads a program at the National Science Foundation called Advance, designed to increase women's participation in science and engineering. “If you let the normal processes go their way, you get what happened at MIT.” The Advance program has given 19 awards averaging $3 million to $3.5 million during the past 5 years to encourage universities to devise strategies to recruit more women in science and engineering. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for example, search committees receive extensive briefings on diversity issues. At the University of California, Irvine, faculty members act as “equity advisers” to monitor and assist with searches. And at the University of Washington, Seattle, department chairs are trained to encourage diversity. Abigail Stewart, the principal investigator on Michigan's Advance grant, says there has been a “sharp upturn” in hiring women there since the grant began but adds that her analysis is not yet complete. Representatives from major research universities plan to meet in June in Ann Arbor to compare data and approaches.

Hogan and others say that for now, strong deans willing to push their department chairs may be the most effective tools for recruiting a new generation of female scientists. At MIT, Silbey says he will push harder to find young and excellent women for his departments. Of 10 new hires starting in July, he says four are women.

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