MIT's Prof Nancy Hopkins has helped increase the numbers of women in engineering and science in MIT. She was in Ireland recently to offer advice to other women in the field, writes David Jackson


Towards Gender Balance in Engineering‘, a recent report by the UCD Engineering Graduates Association (EGA), shows that only 20% of third-level engineering students in Ireland are female. The report also revealed that within the engineering profession at large, women make up only around 10%.

Ireland is not alone in this regard and similar low numbers of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are to be found in most other Western countries. Low numbers of women enter STEM education and fewer still stay on long enough to take senior posts such as departmental heads, deans and heads of faculty. This ‘leaky pipeline’ results in a lack of female role models in engineering and engineering education.

World-leading advocate for women in science, Prof Nancy Hopkins, Amgen Inc Professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), spoke recently about the barriers that women face in academia and research at a special event at Trinity College Dublin. The Centre for Women in Science & Engineering Research (WiSER) hosted the discussion the day before Prof Hopkins was due to receive an honorary doctorate from the university.

Prof Hopkins has been an advocate for women in STEM since her appointment, in 1995, as Chair of the First Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT. Her work was recognised by then US President Clinton, and she is credited with improving the status – and number – of women faculty at MIT and other institutions across the United States.

The barriers to women’s advancement and how MIT addressed them administratively were discussed at the event. Despite enormous progress, effort is still needed to achieve equity and parity for women in science in the US. Two significant barriers that remain are unconscious bias, which results in exclusion and undervaluation of women, and greater family obligations.

Unconscious bias and family obligations

When Prof Hopkins was first appointed at MIT, only one in 12 faculty members in its School of Science were women. She originally put this down to the long working hours required and the idea that women decided to become mothers rather than scientists. Over time, Prof Hopkins became gradually aware that men and women were being treated differently within MIT. It became apparent that unconscious gender bias was a problem – the under evaluation of equal work by women or men.

“I wanted to compare how men and women were treated when they made a scientific discovery because you’re only as good as the way your discoveries are perceived. I began to realise that when discoveries were made, which I believed were of equal scientific importance, the man was considered great and wonderful and the woman was kind of invisible. This seemed very odd because in America, we all believe that America is a meritocracy and so this wasn’t possible. How could this be? I had to see many cases where I could evaluate it and, after 20 years, I’d seen enough that I absolutely knew it was true.
“Finally, I realised. I saw women make Nobel Prize-winning discoveries and they still weren’t valued. That’s when I realised that, well, this was ridiculous. These women were working harder and harder and harder – and no matter what they did, they were almost invisible. It got in the way of your ability to do your work because you couldn’t get the resources to do the research.”

Professor Hopkins was eager to acknowledge the work that has been done in creating a family-friendly culture for women at MIT. MIT has gone from a scenario where no female faculty member had ever taken leave and gotten tenure to having three major day-care centres on campus. The highlighting of these changes and improvements made can have a positive impact on the future behaviour and attitude of women in STEM education.

“The Dean of Science established a whole series of committees and appointments. He appointed me to the highest level of the administration to work with the provost to change policies. At the time we started this, no woman had ever taken family leave and gotten tenure. In fact, the Dean had kept it secret from the tenure committee that a woman had had a child because he was afraid it would affect their vote on her tenure case. That’s what we started with.

“We took this on straight away as problem one. Three new family policies for family leave were discussed through the institution with all the women, with all the department heads and written into policy. Junior women were assembled and asked what was the number one thing MIT could do to help women? They said day care. So MIT redesigned the building and put day care on the ground in the centre of MIT. Now there are three major day-care centres on campus.

“The end result is that junior women and everybody [feels that they can have] babies now. Glass-walled baby centres. That’s almost the biggest change: from not being able to discuss the issue to…having children [without the fear of negative consequences]. It’s important to get it out to women that this change has happened. Women still feel that they cannot do it, but these women are doing it.”

Institutional change

Institutional change is the key to the development of gender balance in higher education. Prof Hopkins credits the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the expansion of affirmative action in 1967 to include gender, as two key factors in her own career progression. The Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against women when they applied for jobs in universities while affirmative action laws threatened the cut of federal funding for gender discrimination, as part of the hiring process.

Prof Hopkins was appointed by then-MIT Dean of Science, Robert Birgeneau, to chair the first Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science. A summary of her committee’s findings, published in 1999, came to be known as the ‘MIT Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science’. The report initially went to the Dean and he went about fixing the problems individually.

His response was to go out himself and recruit more women. It was only when the report went public, and when the public reaction that followed was measured, that Birgeneau realised he had to take on these issue and attempt to fix them at an institutional level.

“When the Dean was responding on his own, fixing all those problems, nothing was changing institutionally. So you knew when that man left it would go backwards, it was only when the president of the institution took it on, and said we are going to make institutional change, that you really had hope this could happen,” said Prof Hopkins.

“My own feeling is that we’re still fragile unless you have the head of the institution’s support and the top administrators see that this is one of that leader’s goals.”

The importance of government support and institutional change for gender balance is highlighted by Prof Hopkins’ belief that without them, in 2015, there could be no women on the faculty in MIT. O'RiordanNewseducation,jobs,MIT,STEM,UCD,women in engineering
  'Towards Gender Balance in Engineering', a recent report by the UCD Engineering Graduates Association (EGA), shows that only 20% of third-level engineering students in Ireland are female. The report also revealed that within the engineering profession at large, women make up only around 10%. Ireland is not alone in this...