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Making Progress

New study shows stronger numbers, ­involvement for women on MIT’s faculty

In 1999 and 2002, two landmark reports on the status of female faculty members at MIT gained national attention for acknowledging inequity at the Institute. Focusing on the schools of engineering and science, the reports showed that women made up a slim minority on the MIT faculty and also felt professionally marginalized. For example, they said they had less access to resources and were excluded from departmental decision making.

MIT women MIT professors Mildred ­Dresselhaus and Lotte Bailyn listen to Harvard professor Cherry Murray ’73, PhD ’78.

But in the last decade, the number of female faculty members in the two schools has nearly doubled, going from 30 to 52 in science and 32 to 60 in engineering. Those women also report a better experience at the Institute, according to a new study released in March just before the academic symposium “Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT.” The symposium highlighted the progress women have made in achieving recognition for their professional accomplishments. Speakers included three winners of the National Medal of Science, two MacArthur “genius grant” winners, and nine members of the National Academy of Science or the National Academy of Engineering.

While the new report documented a lot of positive changes, it also noted where there is room for improvement. In science, for example, faculty search procedures and child-care issues continue to raise concerns.

Lorna Gibson, a professor of materials science and engineering and chair of the School of Engineering study, says the “change in the environment” over the last decade is apparent. “I chaired the study 10 years ago for engineering, and if you had asked me then how much better I thought it could get for women faculty, I never would have thought that we would get this far in 10 years,” she says.

Hazel Sive, associate dean in the School of Science and a professor of biology, found that talking to faculty women around MIT provided some “unexpected” insights. “We learned a great deal about the commonality of experience and new problems that have surfaced, including the increasing number of dual-career couples and the challenges they face,” says Sive, who chaired the School of Science study.

Report recommendations include improving mentoring for junior faculty, increasing access to and providing financial aid for child care, consulting with women on department-head appointments, and implementing systems to deal with gender-based harassment.

“It’s a continual process,” says Institute Professor Barbara Liskov, associate provost for faculty equity. “I think this topic requires attention, and we can’t forget about it or think that the problems are solved.”