By Sonalika Goswami
Boston University News Service
Laxmi Balachandra’s case from Babson College is a gateway to 1,796 complaints on sex-based discrimination filed under Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination [MOU1] as of 2021. Sexual discrimination increasingly involves issues of gender stereotyping and unconscious bias. The discrimination continues over the years at many such prestigious institutions, including Harvard university and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Nancy Hopkins, a 79-year-old retired professor of 10 years from MIT, was 20 years old when visiting molecular scientist Francis Crick, who died in 2004, introduced himself by grabbing her breast when she was working at the James Watson’s Lab at Harvard University in 1964. She shrugged it off thinking if she kept excelling in science, she would be respected. But things were no different even after her recruitment at MIT.
“I didn’t apply. I was recruited,” she said. “I was perfectly trained in all the right fields at the right time. But even so, no women had previously been able to get jobs, but suddenly they were being recruited.”
She was the 10th woman to be recruited by MIT in a faculty of 200. She thought to herself that because of these powerful social movements – such the civil rights movement in America,the permanent action regulations and the women’s liberation movement between 1964 and 1970 – those things had removed any barriers because suddenly women could get jobs.
Growing up, Hopkins would look at these men in science who would work incredible hours while their wives would take care of their children and house. She realized the hard work these men do inside the laboratories.
“Well, what you see is that you live in a culture,” she said. Looking back 30-40 years from now, she did not think this would work. “You know, the idea that women did not have wives and yet the system was now expecting them to come in and do what a man did.”
There was a kind of institutional bias built into the system.
“So I thought I saw all this other stuff I was willing to accept. I decided not to have children. I’m going to be just a scientist. I was willing to make this choice,” she said.
What people did not think about then were the implications of how a woman would be evaluated. People were going to undervalue a woman for the same things a man would have done because things were valued differently if people thought they were done by a woman.
“I thought now I just have to work hard. If I’m good enough, it will do. I will be fine. We all believed there was a meritocracy in science and that we could judge the science fairly,” she said. “But it turns out I did not know it at the time. I figured out this was not true.” She doubted herself for 20 years.
“To be sure about yourself is the hardest thing of all. Am I really good enough? Maybe I’m just if I just did a better experiment, then I wouldn’t be having these problems,” she said.
But then in 1994, Hopkins got a call from her male colleague, with whom she had been teaching a course for more than six years with, asking her to talk to the dean regarding the required course that Hopkins and he, who Hopkins thought had become her friend over time, had been working on for three years. He informed Hopkins that she was removed from the course, a year before its launch.
Hopkins would be the only woman teaching a required course in MIT at that time. It was so popular that she was chosen to develop this course at undergraduate level. She ran it through several tests to make sure it was a success.
The male colleague said that teaching with her had become stale over the years and working with another man now would be “fun.” She found out from the dean that they wanted to make millions. They hired an editor and were going to write a book, make CD-ROMs and use the class as a platform for developing the materials they needed.
“I decided I am not going to work like this any longer,” she said.
There was another instance when one of her male colleagues wanted to teach a course with her. When he asked the dean about it, he replied, “MIT undergraduates cannot believe scientific information that is spoken by a woman.”
“That was the culture of that era,” she said.
Hopkins decided to write a letter to MIT President Charles Vest when her friend told her that he won’t be able to evaluate it because he didn’t know her. Instead, Hopkins went to Mary-Lou Pardue, the first woman in MIT to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, who she had admired and respected.
Hopkins asked her for lunch because she wanted her judgment on the letter. She didn’t think a lot of women realized that this was an issue back in the day. Hopkins and Pardue had lunch amidst a noisy midday in a restaurant in Kendall Square. She read the letter, put it down on the table and said, “I’d like to sign this letter. I think we should go and see the president. I agree with everything you’ve said.”
They then went back to look at the MIT catalog of six departments and realized there were only 15 women faculty and two others from the School of Engineering. They decided to talk to them. By the end of a couple of days, they had 10 people who wanted to sign the letter because it turned out they had all figured the bias out. And in the end, 16 of 17 had signed the letter.
The MIT report came out in 1999. Vest appointed Hopkins to the central administration to work along with him and Provost Bob Brown, who later served as the President of Boston University.
Brown set up committees on equality issues to make sure women were paid accordingly and appointed at higher administrative positions. He also worked with the deans to introduce family leave policies and day-care on campus.
“He changed MIT dramatically,” said Hopkins.
MIT’s current President, Provost and Chancellor are all women. The dean of the science department is also a woman, increasing the amount of women within the science and engineering faculties from 8% to 17%. The percentage of total women faculty in MIT is now 21%.
“I remember the day the first woman president of MIT was inaugurated, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I never wanted to be the president of a university. But until that woman walked into that room, I didn’t know I could be,’ ” Hopkins said. “And I think that sort of says it all. You have to see it to be it.”