The dean’s assistant showed them to the conference room. Nancy was always curious to see; This was where the Science Council debated tenure decisions. It was a beautiful room with high ceilings and wooden floors. Nancy’s eyes wandered to the tall polished wood table that dominated the room. She thought of the opening scene. Girls in the balconyWhen the newly formed New York Times Women’s Caucus met with the publisher and other top figures at the newspaper at a 25-foot table, this 121-year-old institution was a dull and shiny mahogany sign that women challenged. For the journalists in the book, “going as far as the eye can see” seemed difficult. This table was small, Nancy thought, but it was no less scary.
Someone has prepared soft drinks, coffee and cookies on the creamer next to the table. There was a large photograph on it, and Nancy saw that the eyes of the other girls were focused on it. There was a portrait of the Dean of the School of Science, Robert Birgenau, and a portrait of the school’s five department heads. The department heads were as always and all smiling and all men. One of them was wearing a tuxedo. “We are number one!” They held up their forefingers to say. Suddenly, all Nancy could see in the room was the photograph. She got sick. This was all a bad idea. “We’re not even on their radar screen,” Penny remembers saying all summer.
The women spent last month preparing a proposal for the dean, asking him to set up a committee on positions, salaries, resources and teaching jobs to ensure that women are treated fairly compared to men. The committee meets with each woman in the faculty once a year to determine any problems and then the dean recommends ways to resolve them. Only 17 of the 214 science school teachers are women. 16 of them signed a letter containing a proposal to the dean – in a polite, conciliatory, cooperative tone.
“We believe that discrimination is less likely to occur when women are seen as valuable, not as powerful or weak, rather than tolerated by the institution.” The crux of the problem is that equal talent and success are not equal in the eyes of the blind.
“Consistent, albeit largely unconscious, gender discrimination within the institution appears to be widespread among female faculty,” they wrote. “We believe that unequal treatment of women coming to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed, to be recognized when they work, and to contribute to a poor quality of life. These women can actually be negative role models for young women. When women are seen as powerful rather than tolerated by the institution, discrimination is reduced.” We believe it will. At the heart of the problem is the inequity of equal talent and performance when viewed blindly. If the Institute clearly shows that it values women, a more realistic view of their abilities and achievements by managers, colleagues and staff will eventually follow.
They fretted over every detail, met in secret, and cut early drafts, afraid of being perceived as activists or, worse, fanatics. They assumed that the dean had already informed the institute’s lawyers.
But Penny is right. When Bob Birgenau walked into the conference room that afternoon for three o’clock, he didn’t even know what the meeting was about. He hadn’t read the letters or proposals the women had carefully written, cut and rewritten over the past month. He spent the better part of each summer running experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island, scattering neutrons in the High Flux Beam Reactor. He spent his early career eschewing administrative duties, and while he liked his role as dean, he preferred to be in the lab, especially at Brookhaven, doing his own research without postdocs or graduate students to manage. It’s back packed as always. He showed the six women who sat waiting for him, a picture of confidence and poise, late summer skin and a wide smile.
If he had to, Birgeneau assumed they were there to discuss a dispute he knew all too well: Last spring, Nancy came to see him fired from teaching the introductory biology course she developed despite her high income. Ratings from students. Instead, Nancy explained how they had met over the summer, said they wanted to work with the university, and explained their proposal to the Women’s Committee. Knowing that she was having trouble controlling her nerves, she jotted down a note. In a bold manner, “University growth comes from committed faculty meeting committed management. Now is an opportunity at MIT to do something important about this very important problem.
The women moved around the conference table, starting with Sylvia, then Joan. They described the dynamics of their work: how optimistic they felt about coming to MIT, only to end up feeling marginalized, neglected, and disillusioned with resources. Lisa talked about wages, describing how some women realized they were underpaid after receiving a surprise raise. The women knew they would make sacrifices in their personal lives when they chose a career in science, but they did not expect to be paid less than their male counterparts. None of the women in the room had children, Nancy told him, “even if they weren’t married.”