A Breakthrough For MIT -- And Science

Five years after conceding rampant sexism, MIT has a new president, Susan Hockfield

Massachusetts Institute of Technology shocked academia five years ago with a scathing report about how it had discriminated against female scientists. Although many were world-class, the country's most prestigious science university publicly confessed that its male-dominated culture had marginalized them. Women were paid less, received fewer resources, and were often treated as if they were "invisible," the report concluded. Moreover, despite a flood of women earning PhDs, their share of MIT's science faculty hadn't risen in more than a decade. In MIT's entire history, no woman had ever headed a science department.

Fast-forward five years: In early December, Yale University provost Susan Hockfield will take over as MIT's new president. In a country where female scientists remain constrained by a forbidding glass ceiling, the appointment of the neuroscientist is being hailed as a major breakthrough. "This will have a tremendously important impact on American science," predicts Yale University President Richard C. Levin.

Hockfield, 53, hardly wants to be confined to women's issues and is developing a sweeping agenda for MIT. In six years as a top Yale official, she accelerated a $1 billion program to modernize the university's science facilities while boosting graduate students' pay and launching new programs to give them more support. While Hockfield hasn't yet developed a detailed plan for MIT, she must grapple with a growing list of challenges, including shrinking government funding for research, a sharp drop in applications from foreign students, and the growing importance of biotech at a university renowned for engineering and the physical sciences. She also hopes to use her post as a bully pulpit to reverse what she considers an alarming slide in U.S. science overall. "In the second half of the 20th century we led the world in innovation, but now we're not keeping up with other countries in our investments in science and engineering," she says.

At the same time, Hockfield, who was a renowned neuroscience researcher before moving into administration, will likely be a role model in efforts to promote women scientists. While there has been a huge jump in the number of young women studying math and science since the early '70s, few are rising to the top in either academia or industry. In effect, "we are throwing away the potential of half of our nation," argues Hockfield.

The problem isn't a lack of interest on the part of female students. Since 1972, the number of women earning degrees in science and engineering has grown dramatically (charts). Today, women earn more than half the nation's bachelor's degrees in biology, nearly half of those in chemistry, and some 21% in engineering, up from just 1% in 1972. Similarly, in 1972, few women earned PhDs in science. Today they account for over 40% of PhDs awarded in the life sciences, over 25% in the physical sciences, and some 16% in engineering. This stands in sharp contrast to declining male interest. In 1973 men earned a record 225,000 bachelor's degrees in science. By 2001 that had fallen to 198,000, even as the number of women earning science bachelor's degrees more than doubled, to 203,000.


Yet women still face enormous obstacles in academia and the workplace. Despite all those PhDs in math and science, female presence drops off sharply among assistant professors in these subjects, according to a Ford Foundation study of hiring at the nation's top 50 research universities conducted by Donna J. Nelson, associate chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma. In biology, Nelson found that while women won 45% of PhDs from 1993 to 2002, they held just 30% of assistant professor jobs in 2002. Similarly, they earned 21% of computer science degrees but had only about half that share of assistant professor slots in the field.

The problem gets worse at higher levels. At top research universities women hold just 15% of full professorships in biology and under 10% in other science and engineering fields. "We are not near getting to a critical mass of women," concludes Jong-on Hahm, head of the committee on women in science and engineering at the National Research Council. At the rate women are being added to faculty ranks, she says, they won't be representative for decades.

One major barrier: the long hours typically required to advance in many hard-science jobs. After finishing a PhD and post doc, putting in 6 to 10 more years on a science tenure-track position makes it tougher to start a family. And a recent study by the General Accounting Office found that few newly minted female PhDs seek tenure-track positions at research institutions. "If a woman decides she is going to have a family, [university science departments] equate that with not being serious," says Nelson.

Women haven't fared much better in the workplace. They accounted for 25% of information-technology workers in 2002, the same level as in 1996, according to a study last year by the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington (Va.) lobbying group. The barriers are largely the same as in academia, the report found: long hours that conflict with family responsibilities, few female role models, and old-boy networks that are difficult to crack. "We know we have fundamental problems with women in high tech, but dealing with them involves changing a lot of social and cultural factors, which isn't easy," says ITAA President Harris Miller.

Hockfield managed to break through these barriers at every stage -- putting in long hours and delaying marriage and children. Her first break came a year after earning her doctorate in anatomy and neuroscience at Georgetown University, when she landed a research job at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island under James D. Watson, the Nobel laureate for his contributions to the discovery of the double helix of DNA. "I was analyzing data late into the night and never went home before midnight," she recalls.


Watson soon asked Hockfield to take over Cold Spring's prestigious summer courses in neurobiology. After five years, she jumped to the Yale University School of Medicine, where she conducted research on the brain, including how the visual system works. In 1991 she won tenure -- a year ahead of schedule -- as Yale moved to hang on to its rising star.

To be sure, Hockfield, who didn't marry until the year she got tenure, wasn't distracted by a family. She was also lucky to land at Yale, a clear leader in grooming women for academic leadership. Three of Hockfield's predecessors there went on to head major universities: Alison Richard, now vice-chancellor of Britain's Cambridge University; Judith Rodin, ex-president of University of Pennsylvania; and Hannah Gray, former president of the University of Chicago.

It was at Yale that Hockfield proved her talent for administration. When she became dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences in 1998, Yale was lagging in the competition for grad students, and teaching assistants were demanding a union. Hockfield boosted grad students' base stipend by 50%, to $15,000, by 2002, and gave them free health care. She also beefed up career advice and minority outreach. The payoff? Grad program applications doubled, as did minority enrollment, and the union was voted down. "She had a transformational impact," says former Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) Chairman John E. Pepper Jr., now Yale's vice-president for finance and administration.

Hockfield also pressed to hire more women. When she took over, the computer science department had no women. Today there are four female faculty, plus three in physics, up from zero when Hockfield arrived. "It's amazing how fast these things can happen" when attitudes change, she says.

She faces a similar challenge at MIT. The 1999 report prompted it to stop the seven-year tenure clock for a woman who has a child, in effect giving her an extra year. And search committees look at more diverse applicants. Today there are 51 female engineering faculty, up from 31 in 1999. University-wide, women make up 17% of the faculty, vs. 11% in 1993. "There is wonderful momentum, and I will work to continue it," says Hockfield. If she succeeds, the impact will be felt far beyond the labs and classrooms of MIT.

By William C. Symonds in New Haven

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