March 30, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
12 years ago MIT acknowledged it was a hostile place for women faculty. The university became a national model in higher education for addressing gender equity. Its mea culpa encouraged other institutions to evaluate their treatment of women faculty, and the National Science Foundation and the National Academies launched major initiatives to increase opportunities for women in science.
Much has been done at MIT in the last twelve years: systematic efforts to hire women faculty have doubled their numbers; structures give women a seat on all university committees; year-long pauses in the tenure clock, full semester leaves for all with a new child in the home, campus day care, and subsidies for childcare during business travel support work-life balance; women hold important campus leadership positions (including university president); salaries, lab space, resources, research support, and teaching loads are now more equitable; and more.
Progress? Absolutely. But a recent MIT evaluation notes unanticipated consequences.
“Because things are so much better now, we can see an entirely new set of issues,” admits Hazel Sive, the Associate Dean in the School of Science who led one of the committees preparing the report.
The new issues include perceptions that women’s promotions and hiring reflect affirmative action, not hard work and personal accomplishments. With so few women faculty, they can lose half their research time serving on campus committees. Tenure extensions and terms off favor male colleagues who use the time for research and lucrative consultancies, not childcare – creating new professional inequities. Lingering stereotypes keep women navigating a “narrow personality range” of not too aggressive or too soft.
What’s the learning in all this?
On gender in the workplace: we may have come a long way, baby, but we have miles to go before we sleep. Societal perceptions and organizational policies still result in unequal playing fields for women professionals. Inequity may be subtle, but it’s there. We have our head in the sand if we deny that.
On leadership, I see two key learnings. First, every leader needs strong skills in systemic thinking. Change one policy or practice, and there will be consequences elsewhere. Effective leaders anticipate the implications of their decisions – and engage others in helping them see their own systemic blindness.
Second, strong leaders take on tough issues. We’ll never make progress on a complex issues like gender equity if leaders across organizations and sectors play it safe, or worry about making mistakes. Leadership is all about taking a stand.
MIT admitted gender inequity hasn’t been eliminated on its faculty, but there’s been progress — and there will be more. That’s something to celebrate.