The University Record, February 5, 2001

University joins 8 other schools to address gender inequity

By Jane R. Elgass

President Lee C. Bollinger (left) makes a point to MIT Prof. Nancy Hopkins and Princeton Prof. Shirley Tilghman during the Presidents Workshop on Gender Equity Jan. 29. Around the table (from Bollinger’s left) are Yale President Richard Levin, University of California at Berkeley Vice Provost Jan de Vries, Hopkins, Tilghman and MIT Dean of Engineering Thomas L. Magnanti. Photo by Donna Coveney, MIT
Twenty years ago, recognizing that female students and faculty were seriously underrepresented in the sciences and engineering, the University launched the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, a support system with a variety of components designed to encourage women to pursue college study in these fields. It was thought that this would help remedy the “pipeline” problem that contributed to very low numbers of women faculty in the science and engineering disciplines.

“It was believed that the inclusion of women faculty would happen as a matter of course, that the numbers would increase nationally,” said President Lee C. Bollinger. “That has not been the case.”

Last week, following a first-of-its-kind meeting of leaders from nine major research universities, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the U-M joined the other universities in endorsing a statement on the equitable treatment of women faculty in science and engineering. The statement was released following the daylong Jan. 29 meeting of presidents, chancellors, provosts and 25 women faculty.

“Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available,” the statement said. “We recognize that barriers still exist” for women faculty.

The institutions’ leaders agreed to:

  • Analyze the salaries and the proportion of other university resources provided to women faculty.

  • Work toward a faculty that reflects the diversity of the student body.

  • “Recognize that this challenge will require significant review of, and potentially significant change in, the procedures within each university, and within the scientific and engineering establishments as a whole.”

  • Reconvene within a year to share information on initiatives that will be launched to address the problem.

    Bollinger said that the meeting and the resulting statement are an important first step in publicly acknowledging the problem, raising the right questions and working as quickly as possible to eliminate inequities.

    “There are many causes of gender inequity, making a quick solution difficult,” he said. “We have to first recognize that there is a problem and commit ourselves to a solution. You have to care that something happened here. It’s a multifaceted problem.”

    Bollinger also noted that the U-M, under the provost’s direction, already has taken a leadership position to address these issues. Along with WISE, other initiatives include asking faculty search committees to make special efforts to identify and recruit talented women, innovative changes in family-related policies, and a review of the tenure process to ensure that women aren’t disadvantaged.

    Linda Katehi, associate dean for academic affairs, College of Engineering, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Abigail Stewart, director, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Agnes Inglis Collegiate Professor of Psychology, and professor of women’s studies; and Lisa Tedesco, vice president and secretary of the university, also represented the U-M at the meeting. Provost Nancy Cantor, who has worked during her tenure to refine policies affecting women, particularly those with family care responsibilities, and to implement strategies to improve the overall U-M environment for all women, was unable to attend the meeting.

    MIT President Charles Vest and MIT faculty members Nancy Hopkins, Lotte Bailyn and Lorna Gibson hosted the program, titled the “Presidents Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering,” sponsored by the Ford Foundation. The Foundation has funded MIT’s Gender Equity Project, a result of MIT’s public acknowledgment of gender bias, as described by MIT women scientists in the 1999 report “Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT.”

    “The fact that this topic was discussed today by these participants was almost an historic event, not just another meeting,” said Hopkins, who initiated the study that resulted in senior women science faculty members getting greater recognition, equity increases in compensation and more lab space. “I thought it was a milestone that never could happen in my lifetime.”

    Discussion and brainstorming during the intense eight-hour workshop revolved around four questions:

  • What are the issues in your institutions and the successful or unsuccessful strategies you have pursued?

  • What are the systemic causes of the problems we face?

  • What new actions could each institution take?

  • What might we do collectively?

    “The low numbers of women faculty in the sciences and engineering are unquestionably an issue,” Cantor said last week. “We are producing significant numbers of women graduates in science and engineering, yet the professoriate remains essentially male. We need to take steps to remedy this situation.

    “But it’s not just the numbers. The real challenge will be to achieve a fundamental shift in climate at the department level, the level at which individuals live their professional lives.

    We have to take a long, hard look at what we really mean by equity, what we really mean when we say we value diversity,” Cantor added. “What is it about the academic workplace in sciences and engineering that drives away these extraordinarily talented women? How can we redefine the academy so that long-term success does not turn on gender?”

    The meeting and its resulting statement “are a very strong signal that increased attention must be given to gender equity and the advancement and promotion of women in the academy,” Tedesco said. “Michigan is fortunate to have both a president and a provost committed to these goals and committed to supporting efforts that will continue our progress. It’s also important to note that the involvement of department chairs, along with deans, is crucial to the success of any programs we initiate.”

    The presence at the meeting of Vest, who was provost here before moving to MIT, and Princeton President and former U-M President Harold Shapiro was “wonderfully encouraging” to Tedesco. “Either directly or indirectly, one-third of the leadership launching this important initiative has ties to Michigan.”

    Katehi also sees the workshop and statement as “a major step forward to address issues that affect the careers of female faculty in science and engineering. The meeting demonstrated the quality of the leadership of these nine institutions in their ability to publicly recognize the need to address and, eventually, to solve issues that for many years have compromised the careers of female faculty in these disciplines.”

    For Stewart, the meeting holds significance in several areas.

    “First, the planned structure of the meeting incorporated an opportunity for extended, candid exchange between senior women scientists and high-level decision-makers in universities, in small groups. This context provided a truly unusual opportunity for women scientists to describe the still-much-too-high obstacles to equity and to describe them to people who are in a position to make changes.

    “Equally important, this kind of exchange creates a powerful expectation among the participants. They expect to see the institutional commitments made at MIT made real at each university.”

    The meeting also was important, Stewart added, “because it created a comparative perspective. Each institution has been challenged to outpace the others in accomplishing gender equity in this domain. Clearly, the one that does that has a tremendous opportunity to mobilize untapped talent in the large pool of women with doctorates being trained at these and other institutions, who nevertheless do not end up on our faculties.”

    Stewart also said, “Women scientists on each campus will be important advocates for actions that realize the sentiments expressed at the meeting.”

    “The hard work of actually addressing this issue—attaining equitable conditions and outcomes for women in science and engineering at the U-M—lies ahead and will involve a much larger community of colleagues.”

    In addition to the U-M, the statement was endorsed by the California Institute of Technology, MIT, Princeton University, Stanford University, Yale University, University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

    Representatives of the Ford Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science also participated in the workshop.