MIT Reports Gains for Female Professors, but Obstacles Remain

Like a true scientist, a senior Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty member took a measured approach when recognizing results of the school's decade-long efforts to provide a more conducive environment for women professors. "This is a celebration -- with caveats," said the female faculty member, who wasn't identified in the MIT report.

Spurred largely by a 1999 report that cited gender discrimination among the reasons why women accounted for less than 10% of MIT's science and engineering faculty at the time, the school made a concerted effort to address the stereotypes and misconceptions that limited women's advancement through MIT's academia. According to an MIT report released this month, the effort appears to have paid dividends.

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Within MIT's science school, women now account for 19% of all faculty, up from 8% in 1999, while that percentage within the engineering school jumped to 17% today from 10% in 2001, according to the study. Particularly, the number of women faculty in the science school, which hovered in the low 20s from 1975 until 1996, spiked to 35 by 2000 and has since gone up to more than 50.

It's a far cry from 1995, when tenured men within the science faculty outnumbered women by a 13-to-one ratio.

"This is a quick period of movement," said Mary Corcoran, professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Michigan. "They made a concerted effort, and that commitment really paid off."

The results reflect major strides for a 150-year-old institution long considered the premier science school in the country. MIT, which was founded in 1861 and graduated its first female student a dozen years later, topped the U.S. News & World Report's list of best U.S. engineering schools this year, beating out Stanford and U.C. Berkeley for the top spot. The school also came in at either No. 1 or No. 2 for the publication's list of top programs for biological and computer sciences, physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Time for Cautious Optimism

To better enable women to advance through the science program, MIT became more equitable when it came to salary and resource distribution and increased the number of women in higher administrative positions. More family friendly policies -- including allowing women professors to take one term off after childbirth -- are an example of MIT's engineering department's efforts to encourage women to rise through the ranks.

Still, such advances leave many who study the progress of women in traditionally male-dominated fields cautiously optimistic, at best.

"There has been tremendous progress in the twelve years since the original MIT study," said Ann Mari May, professor of economics at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "However, it begs the question -- how can we address the problem of gender inequity in higher education in other institutions of higher learning where ongoing problems exist for many women faculty, particularly in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines?"

Obstacles Remain

Indeed, MIT's female faculty, while praising the school's advances, said obstacles remained when it came to encouraging more women to reach a tenured position. Among concerns were the propensity for many of their male counterparts to work on projects only with either other men or far younger women, letters of recommendation that are more likely to praise a woman for her temperament while often citing a man's intelligence, and the challenges of working with European male professors who often take a chauvinistic view towards women in the field.

That said, given MIT's stature, its progress may be substantial enough to encourage more women to get doctorates in the science and engineering fields, expanding the pool of potential female professors as a result, noted University of Michigan's Corcoran.

"The closer you get to 50-50 (male-female percentage), the better the climate's going to be for women," said Corcoran, who noted a similar progression over the past three decades in her own field of political science. "At some point, you stop treating people as 'women' and more as an individual."