03
Dec
08

awakenings

Feminist awakenings, that is, are happening, bit by bit, in the aftermath of the 2008 Presidential Election.

Last night I attended an anniversary party for the 50th anniversary of my PhD department at MIT.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the school.   Current PhD students – most of us women attending the event (and arguably in our dept. overall) – listened to a panel of 5 PhD recipients representing different decades: the first to speak was a man who is a retiring MIT professor, one of the first graduates of the program in the 1960s who went on to spend, like so many male MIT PhD graduates, almost his entire career at the Institute.  Following him was a woman, a faculty and dean from Princeton, who received her PhD from MIT in 1971.

During the introductions, she was credited as the first woman to receive her PhD from the department.  Everyone in the room clapped and cheered.  I was struck by it; we’re probably one of the most politically-minded departments in the Institute, but if the top 3 employers of PhD grads is any indication – World Bank, MIT, and Harvard – we’re not exactly firebrands.  It struck my obsessive, politicized mind as a distinctly post-election moment.

Prof. XY-’60s spoke first, about being offered a spot in the new PhD program when he arrived as a Master’s student in the early 1960s, the fully funded option coming through the haze of pipe smoke from the male faculty member extending the offer.  When he was close to graduating, another professor man offered Prof. XY-’60s a job: “Would you like to teach here?”  They asked several times before he finally accepted – “okay.”  Why not? 40 years later, he’s finally leaving the department.

When Prof. XX-70s spoke, one of the first thing she said was “no one offered me a job.”  Shocking, I know.  Also shocking – there was no applause for that.

Buried in the print materials lauding the department was the recognition that no women have gone through the complete tenure track in our department – from assistant professor to tenure – since 2007.  As recently as 2002, no woman had done that ever in our School (not just the dept).  Last night’s panel was a perfect encapsulation of that: 5 panelists – 3 women – 1 in academia, 1 in industry, and 1 at the Bank.  There’s still a lot of leaks in the academic pipeline.

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2 Responses to “awakenings”


  1. December 3, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    What often fascinates me is that more women don’t press for answers to these questions – why can’t women faculty get tenure? why do so few make it trough PhD programs? what can be changed? I think there’s a sense that, somehow, if the schools just knew this was happening, they’d be on it. But they’re not. Now what?

    Then, too, the equally looming problem is with tenure itself: schools are sitting on lots of expensive, tenured faculty, and the tenure process has become more about hurdles and roadblocks than letting anyone new in. Look at the limited number of tenure tracked roles, the high bars to tenure track roles, and the sense that only “stars” will get fast tracked. It’s a recipe meant to be discouraging, and I suspect for women, it’s even more so, when you already have such political and experiential hurdles to cross.

    Of course you know way more of this than I do, and I may be off from what I remember with my Mom. My own intensive exposure to university politics has made me no fan of tenure, and personally I’d rather see more energy devoted to developing an alternative. But that’s me.

  2. 2 grahamad
    December 3, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Well, MIT is “famous” because women did ask. And a study was done, b/w 1999-2002, in which the university admitted that it had a gender bias problem (once the #s were right there in front of them). There’s also the issue that it’s often hard to prove the systemic nature of bias. I didn’t know until I read it last night the actual stats of the problem of women’s recruitment and retention in my dept. We have 4 women who are at or near the tenure mark now, all associate professors. I haven’t been here long enough to know who was recruited as an assistant or not, and it sounds like not enough women faculty have been either. (I think the gender composition is 75/25 male/female). Sure, we have a small cohort of senior women faculty, and a new woman chair (begins Jan) and a woman Dean (who started a year or two ago). But unless they’re organizing around this issue…and if they all have tenure and/or positions of authority – the latter of which is reflected on by the recruitment #s – then it’s debatable whether or not they want to get involved with the issue, and how.

    In theory I agree with you, and I think gender inequality in academia (and I assume race/ethnicity, which I know much less about, but enough to know is also a huge problem) is one of those issues where everyone knows it’s a problem but you need strength in #s to really address it. And, also, job security. Furthermore, in the academic environment, in which status and authority are awarded by your peers, in large part depending on whether they respect your research and want to work with you, being the one to constantly address the gender gap is not really a gig any particular woman wants to sign on for. Also, no one wants to set themselves up for unfair rumors that they got the gig cuz they were “the woman” or the black faculty member. The disparity is already so stark that concerns of tokenism are already alive and well.

    Me, I just enjoy sending depressing stats and articles around to my fellow PhDs, in the hopes of raising awareness. 🙂


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