Plugging the Leaky Pipeline
Science and engineering industries drain women from academe, but MIT is trying to reverse the flow.
On a late afternoon last April, as sunlight streamed into the atrium of the Wiesner Building, some 250 women gathered at the fifth annual Celebrating Graduate Women reception, mingling at the risotto bar and munching on red grapes stuffed with chvre and roasted pistachios. Provost Robert Brown wished them well and described his own hopes for the event: that one day it would exceed the capacity of the atrium and require a larger space. He concluded with a note of urgency: We need you in the academic profession.
That need is particularly acute in science and engineering. Although MIT has made strides in gender diversity, expanding the ranks of female faculty in recent years, the numbers are still low. Between 1995 and 2004, the percentage of women on the faculty increased from 7 to 13 percent in engineering and from 8 to 13 percent in science. Meanwhile, by 2004, the percentages of women in the undergraduate and graduate programs reached 34 and 24 percent, respectively, in engineering and 53 and 34 percent in science.
Some call this disproportion evidence of a leaky pipeline. Although the number of women students in science and engineering at U.S. universities has grown steadily, in some disciplines reaching parity with men, the proportion of female faculty hasnt kept pace. A recent study of the top 50 U.S. research universities found that in most science and engineering fields, the percentage of women earning doctorates is significantly higher than the percentage of female faculty. Its not just a numbers game, according to Catherine Didion, executive director of the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists. The assumption weve had in the past is that if we can get the numbers and degrees up, it would translate into a movement in terms of [women faculty], she says. Clearly theres some hiccup.
A complex set of issues inhibits women from pursuing academic careers: the difficulty of balancing work and family, the demands of spouses or partners careers, an unfavorable academic climate, poor self-esteem. And the syndrome feeds on itself: the paucity of women professors means few role models for ambitious grad students to emulate. MIT has developed programs and policies to encourage graduate women to stay in academia and to attract and retain female faculty. In the past few years, for example, graduate student women have witnessed the growth of support groups and programs, the establishment of a maternity leave policy, and the allocation of some scholarship funds for day care. At the faculty level, the Institute has changed search committee practices to facilitate broader searches, added a childbearing-leave policy, built a new child-care center, and made efforts to change the cultural climate, so that women dont feel as marginalized.
We cant afford to lose talent, says Alice Hogan, director of the National Science Foundations Advance program. You hear a lot about the Chinese brain drain. Well, weve got a national brain drain here. Its the women and [minorities] that arent active in science. Because the stakes are so high, MIT agreed last spring to team up with eight other universities to study the leaky-pipeline issue. Preliminary plans call for the universities to collect and compare baseline data and exchange ideas about improving the situation at each university.
Roadblocks along the Way
Balancing work and family is one of the biggest challenges women mention when discussing their academic careers. Laura Anne Lowery was sure she wanted to be an academic when she started her PhD at the Whitehead Institute four years ago. After she got married last year, she started to have doubts. My family is the most important thing for me. That really is what drives me, and research, although I love it, is second to that, she says. She worries about waiting too long to start a family. I hear that a lot. Older women faculty say they waited, and then it was too late.
Todays academics often secure tenure only in their late 30s, which for women makes having children even more difficult. Didion cites the need for postdoctoral training due to the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science and engineering and the limited number of faculty positions as reasons for the delay. Women are realizing if they put off having children, they may have difficulty doing it later, says biology professor Hazel Sive.
For some, the price of waiting is too high. Anna Thornton was on the tenure track in mechanical engineering but decided to leave MIT in 2000, so she would have more time for her family and because work in industry appealed to her. I was very concerned about the whole tenure thing and having a child, she says. I didnt want to risk my ability to have my kids at a decent age.
Another problem is that of competing careers. Studies indicate that women engineers are likely to marry other engineers or scientists. Women are also more apt to make career sacrifices to keep their relationships intact. When Penny Beuning started her postdoc in biology in 2001, about half of the 15 people in her lab were in long-distance relationships. Her husband was in Minnesota finishing a postdoc, and she found the six-month separation stressful. I was considering giving up my postdoc if he didnt get a job here, she says. Now shes looking for an academic position, knowing that if her husband doesnt get tenure at Northeastern University, she may have to give up her job.
The cultural marginalization of women is another common theme. Jessica Tsay 04, who next fall will start her doctorate in environmental fluids at the University of California, San Diego, says she is concerned about gender bias. Professors evaluate the performance of women differently and give them lower grades, she maintains. Beuning says that at times women are not taken seriously. For example, she says, when a woman has an idea, its ignored, but when a man later makes the same suggestion, its a great idea.
According to Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology, the cultural climate can vary depending on the field. Math, physics, and computer science are traditionally fields where there are very few women, she says. Anette Hosoi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, believes changing the academic environment takes time. [In] traditionally male-dominated fields, theres a lot of culture to get by in order to bring women into them.
Self-esteem is another hiccup in the pipeline. A 2002 survey of MIT freshmen showed that 48 percent of men rated themselves in the top 10 percent of all college freshmen in terms of intellectual self-confidence. Only 18 percent of women rated themselves similarly. Among graduate students, a 2003 survey found a less pronounced but still significant disparity: 29 percent of women rated themselves in the top 10 percent, versus 39 percent of men. That comes as no surprise to Hosoi. Undergrad and grad women come up to me and say, Im not going to make it through here because everybodys smarter than I am. And then you look at their tests, and theyre at the top of the pile.
And academia is no place for those lacking self-confidence. If you think about it, there are not many careers in which you are constantly under scrutiny as much as an academic career, says Simona Socrate, SM 90, PhD 95, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Biology professor Sive believes that the competitive, aggressive nature of science may send some women packing. It can become very stressful to be self-promoting enough, be competitive enough to really feel that [they] are competing equivalently with men.
The absence of female role models is also part of the problem for some young women. When women graduate students look around, they see very few women [faculty], and they wonder why, says Beuning. Tsay made the same observation as an undergraduate. There were women in mechanical engineering, she says, but not nearly enough.
Women faculty can find it difficult to act as role models, especially when they are few and far between. Krystyn Van Vliet, PhD 02, an assistant professor of materials science, believes that a woman faculty member could grow weary of being the representative woman of academia. And faculty who have children, such as Socrate, feel a tension between encouraging women and being candid about the challenges of having a family and an academic career. There is a price to pay, and you wonder, should you be quiet, or should you let them know? I am trying to keep quiet, because I think that the rewards are better than the price.
The overall quality of life associated with a faculty position is yet another stumbling block for women. Thorntons experience of the academic life was that you either worked 80-hour weeks or you didnt succeed. Socrate compares working in the academy to founding a startup business. Even after you get tenurea grueling process that she believes is a major deterrent to womenthe pace never slows down.
Despite these deterrents, there is some cause for hope. Blanche Staton, associate dean for graduate students, says the last two years have seen a twofold increase in the number of department womens groups, which provide support systems, networking opportunities, and workshops. Statons office offers counseling, access to programs such as MentorNet (an electronic mentoring service), and discussions on topics such as harassment and balancing work and family.
Such programs create a climate of openness about womens issues that students find helpful. Lowery has attended several workshops on women in science and is reassured to hear the perspectives of women faculty, especially on the topic of juggling a family and an academic career. I think the more we hear stories like that, the easier it will be for women to not be so afraid.
MIT has addressed the issue of childbearing by adding a maternity leave policy for graduate students and designating some scholarship funding for day care. Postdocs funded by MIT also get maternity leave, but the 36 percent of fellows funded by outside agencies do not; nor do they receive many other MIT benefits. The MIT postdoctoral-scholars association, which provides resources and advocacy for postdocs, is working to solve this problem.
Perhaps most significant, however, have been the Institutes efforts to recruit and retain women faculty. Following widely publicized reports on the status of women faculty at MIT, released in 2002, the Institute looked critically at its policies and practices. It created an Institute-wide Council on Faculty Diversity and a gender equity committee in each school. It also encouraged departments to conduct broader hiring searches. Professor of materials science Lorna J. Gibson developed a search handbook that describes best practices, and copies were sent to the faculty. Broadening hiring searches is beneficial to everyone, Gibson says. Its not always good for the Institute to keep hiring people who look like people who just retired. You want to have something new and different, she says. Success in recruiting women faculty has been mixed, Brown says, but he believes that with heightened awareness and a continuing emphasis on expanding search committees scope, the Institute will eventually reach uniformity in the percentage of women faculty across disciplines.
The School of Engineeringparticularly the mechanical-engineering departmenthas made what Brown terms spectacular progress. Overall, the school has hired 22 women faculty since 2002six in mechanical engineering alone. It really is a quantum change in the way they search and in the results, says Brown. Dean Thomas Magnanti says part of that success comes from hiring across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Weve looked in places we hadnt looked before, and we hired faculty with backgrounds that might not be the natural ones you think of.
Hosoi, a physicist by training who teaches in the mechanical-engineering department, is a case in point. Quite by accident, she discovered another secret to the schools success at a luncheon for junior women faculty. I was surprised to learn that every single one of them had been asked to apply to MITand that none of them would have applied otherwise, she says. Socrate believes this proactive recruiting is critical, because unlike men, who are more apt to take risks, most women wont apply for a job unless they feel confident they fit its requirements exactly.
Although recruitment is a significant challenge, retention is equally important. To help keep women on the faculty, MIT has changed policies and taken steps to improve their quality of life. A childbearing leave implemented in 2002 recognizes the physical components of bearing a childas distinct from gender-blind child-rearing leave. The policy allows a woman who bears one or more children to extend her tenure deadline for up to a year. But Brown acknowledges that its hard for women to take time off. Faculty research funding averages around $600,000 per person per year, he says, and if someone pulls out for a year or two years, their funding goes to zero. Then they have to start up again, and if the startup period is three to four years, they have a huge sacrifice theyve made in the middle of their careers.
Creating additional child care on campus in a new facility at the Stata Center is another amenity Brown hopes will make a real difference. He notes that this past year, MIT hired several women faculty members where the most important negotiating point was the availability of day-care slots for their children.
Efforts to change the overall academic climate seem to be paying off, too. Im sure Ive benefited from the Institute-level interest in making junior faculty who are women comfortable, says Van Vliet. She cites lunches for junior faculty women and opportunities to interact with senior faculty women. MIT has also placed women in leadership rolesdirecting programs, centers, and recently, for the first time, a department within the School of Sciencewhich inspires other women faculty. Its nice to see them as role models, Van Vliet says. There is status attached to leading these big organizations.
Biology professor Hopkins, who was one of the forces behind the groundbreaking 2002 report on the status of women faculty in the School of Science, has closely followed the aftermath of the reports publication. She believes MIT has done a fantastic job addressing the issues it brought forth but adds that theres more work to be done. The question is, how do you get the applicant pools up? Weve got to find out why the women dont apply.
Thats just what MIT and eight peer institutionsPrinceton, Yale, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Caltechintend to do. Last April, at their second Presidents Conference on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering, the universities resolved to ascertain whether they have statistically common experiences and then identify solutions and best practices.
MITs legacy of institutional courage in acknowledging and responding to systemic problems will serve it well as it faces this challenge. And after all, says Hosoi, its part of MITs nature to tackle tough issues. This is the thing I like about MIT. Were all engineers, and we solve problems. Although the Institute has made some inroads already, theres plenty of work ahead as it struggles to plug the leaky pipeline.
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.