"MIT Tarnishes Its Reputation with Junk Gender Science," 
by Prof. Judith Kleinfeld, Univ. of Alaska - Fairbanks 

        Last March the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published
a stunning report confessing to unintentional gender discrimination
against female faculty. The study rocked the academic world.  Many
universities, both in the United States and in Europe, launched gender
equity studies of their own following the MIT model.

        The story of gender discrimination by one of America's most
distinguished universities was featured on the front page of the New
York Times and was carried uncritically by newspapers across the
country.  "It was data-driven and that's a very MIT thing," bragged the
Dean of MIT's School of Science, Robert J. Birgeneau to the New York
        On the contrary, MIT's study on the status of women in the
School of Science is not "data-driven." Empirical evidence is notable
only for its absence. The study is junk science, a political tract
draped in the robes of MIT's international prestige. The report does
not meet the scientific standards expected in a student paper, let
alone a study by one of the world's greatest scientific institutions.

        The brouhaha began when Professor Nancy Hopkins in MIT's
Biology Department demanded more laboratory space.  Space wars are the
stuff of daily life at thriving universities, regardless of the gender
of the combatants.  When Professor Hopkins lost her bid for more
laboratory space, she sought out other tenured women to see if they had
similar grievances. They did.  They were not listened to in meetings,
they were not appointed to the best committees.

        Confronted with these charges, The Dean of the School of
Science quite appropriately launched an investigation.  But who did he
appoint to chair the investigatory commitee?  Why Nancy Hopkins
herself, the chief complainant.  Two-thirds of the committee members
were other senior women in the School of Science.

        The senior women at MIT were thus judge and jury of their own
complaints, interested parties who would profit from a finding of
gender discrimination.

        Profit they did.  Among other benefits, Professor Hopkins
received an endowed chair, a 20 percent salary increase, $2.5 million
of research funds from internal MIT sources, a 5,000 square foot
laboratory, an invitation to join the prestigious National Academy of
Sciences, and an invitation to the White House where the president and
Mrs. Clinton praised her courage and expressed the hope that other
institutions would follow the MIT example.

        But what is this example?  Astonishingly, the study presents no
objective data whatsoever to support its claims of gender
discrimination in laboratory space, salaries, research funds, and other
resources.  MIT is keeping these facts secret, making the ridiculous
claim such facts as sex differences in square feet of laboratory space
is a confidential.

        Genuine science depends on the disclosure of data on which
claims are based so that they can be debated by the scientific
community.  Even if sex differences in laboratory space were found at
MIT, for example, these differences might be explained by factors
unrelated to gender, such as seniority or research productivity.

        The MIT female faculty, at least in the Department of Biology,
where these complaints arose, are less senior than the men and not
their equal in scientific prestige.

        The study does not  even tell us how many MIT female faculty
even perceive gender discrimination.  The study claims that the
"problems were universal." Buried in an appendix, however, are these
telling points: Junior women faculty felt they were treated equally. 
Senior women in only three of of the six departments in the School of
Science perceived any problems.

        Most MIT faculty refuse to comment publicly about the report,
providing a silent testimony to the spirit of McCarthyism pervading the
campus.  One highly-placed source, knowledgeable about what went on in
the Committee and willing to reveal what happened only under the
protection of anonymity, says that the committee actually found no
gender discrimination at all.

        "Heroic efforts were made to get statistics but a lot of this
information was hard to gather, like who had what space.  There was
insufficient data to determine anything in particular," said this
source. "Nobody can make judgments anyway with such small numbers of
people doing such totally different things."

        Only recently did a reporter discover that one female committee
member demanded to be released from the committee because she
considered the meetings "a lot of hype and hysteria."

        The only "hard evidence" that  MIT offers as proof of gender
discrimination is the remarkably low number of women on the faculty of
the School of Science. In 1994, a mere eight percent of the faculty
were women. By 1999, after what the Committee terms "the stunning
success of the collaboration between the women faculty and Dean
Birgeneau," the percentage was up to only ten percent.

        Such a tiny increase in the percentage of female faculty in the
School of Science was the best MIT could do after five years of effort.
Might the best explanation for the sex disparity in MIT's School of
Science be the low number of women in such fields as physics rather
than gender discrimination?

        When confronted with this critique, published by a watchdog
organization, the Independent Women's Forum, MIT stonewalled.  "No
comment," said Nancy Hopkins to reporters

        Only after the Wall Street Journal published a negative
editorial did the arrogant institution deign to reply.  In a letter to
the editor, President Charles Vest and Dean Birgeneau huffed and puffed
and appealed to authority: Nobel laureate Jerome Friedman sat on the
committee; his holy presence turned junk into science.

        The MIT sisterhood not only won big.  So did the dean who
championed them.  The MIT study weighed mightily in Dean Birgeneau's
recent appointment as president of the University of Toronto, Canada's
leading university.

        Who are the losers?  The MIT faculty have been tarred with the
brush of sexism by a Dean who did not conduct an honest, scientific
investigation.  But the biggest losers are women themselves. The MIT
sisterhood is creating is a world where no woman in science will know
if her honors are merited or are gifts designed to appease.

            * * * 

        Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology at the University
of Alaska Fairbanks.

        The MIT study may be accessed at

        Professor Kleinfeld's critique may be accessed at

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