Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
50th Reunion Brief Talks

Mirages of Gender Equality (1960–2014)
Nancy Hopkins

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Women who came to Radcliffe in 1960 arrived at the start of a gender revolution. “The whole concept of women’s place was (about to be) transformed… In the history of our gender,” Gail Collins wrote recently, “this might have been the grandest moment.” Who knew?

I did know that a lot was expected of us.

My mother expected me to marry a Harvard man—and learn a skill that would make me employable in the event of his premature death.

Society was telling us the country needed our brains—particularly (thanks to sputnik), if they were scientifically inclined.

President Bunting seemed to expect us to exceed the professional accomplishments of all women who had ever come before us.

For two years I cast about seeking a major (seriously distracted by the outstanding dating opportunities at Harvard.) Then, in my junior year, I decided I should go to medical school, which required Biology. So I signed up for Bio 2.

Some people find religion driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. I found it in a lecture hall at 2 Divinity Avenue, in the form of Professor James D Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. I walked into that classroom a confused undergraduate searching for the meaning of life—and found it: The secret of life was DNA. It was 1963. The genetic code was still being cracked, but one day this science would explain not just life, but the basis of every human disease. Forget medical school. I wanted to be a molecular biologist. I raced to Jim’s office and asked if I could work in his lab. He said, “Yes.”

To me, there was no place as exciting as the third floor of the Bio labs at Harvard. Every year or so someone you knew made a discovery so profound it would turn your understanding of life upside down. Then they’d win a Nobel prize. I’d often go to lunch with Jim and he’d tell me the latest science news hot off the telephone. There were wonderful parties at Jim’s home whenever one of his science pals, like Francis Crick, was in town. If you were there, you were the luckiest person in the world.

I thought it likely I’d make a Nobel prize-winning discovery, but I had no intention of getting a PhD or being a professor. Despite President Bunting, after a week in Jim’s lab I knew that science and motherhood were incompatible for me. These molecular biologists worked 60-70 hours a week. Their wives stayed home to care for their children. How could you do both jobs? My plan was to do as many experiments as I could before time ran out and I had to quit and have children. In that era, before amniocentesis, that meant age 30.

But Jim decided I should go to graduate school. So I did. Then, when I finished my training, I suddenly faced two surprises: I got divorced and I was offered faculty jobs at MIT and HMS. A new life plan was needed. I decided not to have children, not to remarry. I would just be a scientist. Jim advised me to take the MIT job.

If you had told me then, in 1973, that there was such a thing as gender discrimination, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. It didn’t occur to me that a profession in which half the people on the planet could not participate equally and also have children is discriminatory.

Plus, I assumed the only reason there were no women Professors was because all other women chose to be mothers. I would have been shocked to learn that as recently as 1960, women could take classes at Harvard, but essentially, we could not get faculty jobs in America’s great research universities.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act made such discrimination illegal. And then, when universities still dragged their feet, Affirmative Action laws and regulations in the early 1970s, required them to hire women or lose their federal funding. By 1973 when I was offered faculty jobs, I assumed that gender discrimination was a thing of the past. Off I went to MIT to be a science professor.

By then it was possible to work on cancer at the molecular level. I changed my research direction from working on the most basic life processes using bacterial viruses, to working on viruses that cause cancer in mice. Once again, the field exploded. Soon, most of the major cancer genes were identified. It was thrilling.

But, out on my own, away from my powerful protector, Jim Watson, I found out I had been mistaken. Gender discrimination did exist—even for women who didn’t have children. It took such a surprising form that it took me 20 years to recognize it.

Science is supposed to be a meritocracy. Yet what I observed was that when a man and a woman made scientific discoveries of equal importance, the man and his discovery were valued more highly than the woman and her discovery. Sometimes the woman was invisible. Sometimes her discovery was attributed to someone else.

It was so hard to believe what I was seeing that I needed to see many examples. There were so few female scientists that it took a long time. But after 20 years I knew it was true. By then I was 50 years old.

At this point, it dawned on me that this strange truth I had discovered might be the most important scientific discovery I had made. In fact, it was so important it deserved a Nobel prize. What I didn’t know till some years later, was that my discovery had already been made. In 2002 a Nobel prize was awarded to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman for discovering the irrationality of the human brain, and its inability to make accurate judgments when contradicted by our unconscious biases and beliefs.

Here’s a typical experiment to demonstrate unconscious gender bias: Take a manuscript, and make copies of it. On half the copies, indicate that the author is John. On the other half, indicate that the author is Jennifer. Send the other-wise identical documents out to reviewers. People judge the identical work to be better if they think it was done by John! Incredibly, this is true whether the judges are men --- or women!

Since I believed I was the only person to have discovered unconscious gender bias, I thought I had better tell the university so they could fix the problem. But before I mailed a letter to MIT’s President, I thought I’d check with one other woman scientist. I was amazed: she had figured it out too! We decided to poll all the tenured women Science faculty. That’s when we discovered that in 1994—30 years after the Civil Rights Act—only 8% of the MIT Science faculty were women. Over at Harvard, it was 5%.

Well, to make a tortuous tale short, the women faculty at MIT had figured it out but we had each been afraid to say so: In a meritocracy, if you say you’re discriminated against, people will think you aren’t good enough. By the way, of the 16 tenured women scientists who raised this issue at MIT, 4 have won the US National Medal of science, and 11 are members of the National Academies. Despite these accomplishments, the women were still reluctant to discuss gender bias. But MIT worked with us to study the phenomenon, and in 1999 we published a summary of our results. The President of MIT, Charles Vest, endorsed the findings, which put the story on the front pages of the Globe and the Times. I was invited to the White House where President and Mrs. Clinton praised MIT’s actions and called for all universities to perform similar analyses, and then fix the problem. To the extent that administrative actions can fix these problems, MIT and many other universities have done exactly that over the past 15 years.

I had thought the problems we documented in 1999 pertained only to a handful of women striving to do high level science at MIT and Harvard, but when the results went public we were inundated with e-mails from professional women all over the US and the world saying, “You won’t believe it, but this is my story too.” I was asked to give over 700 talks on this topic, and gave over 150. A question that often arises is, “Why would anyone think women’s identical work is less good than a man’s?”

To answer a question that difficult, you have to ask the smartest man in the room. In January, 2005, the smartest man in the room hypothesized that women may not be genetically equipped to do high-level math and science. His suggestion set off yet another round of research, all of which showed that there still isn’t a shred of credible evidence that any group of people is genetically inferior to any other group. Even the smartest man in the room suffered from unconscious gender bias.

Well, that was way back in 2005. Is unconscious gender bias still with us? A 2012 study from Yale documented that science professors in American universities—both men and women—still prefer to hire John over Jennifer and would pay John a higher salary, even though his CV is identical to Jennifer’s.

Progress for women in our life times was amazing—thanks to visionaries like Mary Bunting. But equality, at the top? Not yet. And not just in science. Today women are 19% of the Science faculty at MIT—exactly the same as the % of women in the US Congress. It’s highly unlikely that the over-representation of men in Congress can be explained by congressmen’s superior math genes.

So: if you want your daughter to win a Nobel prize? become a CEO? or be the President of the United States? Don’t name her Jennifer!

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