Boston University’s 141st Commencement Baccalaureate Address: Nancy Hopkins

“Invisible Barriers and Social Change”

Nancy Hopkins
Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at MIT
Boston University Baccalaureate Speech
Marsh Chapel
May 18, 2014

Thank you, Boston University, for the extraordinary privilege and pleasure of being here today. Good morning guests. And congratulations to those we celebrate and honor this morning – the Class of 2014!

I’m going to describe my participation in a scientific revolution in the field of biology, and a social revolution that began the year I graduated from college but that you, Class of 2014, will have to complete.

I graduated from college 50 years ago, in 1964. My mother expected me to acquire a husband in college – and job skills, in case Plan A failed.  Just four years later, society expected young women to graduate and get on the fast track to high-powered careers. When I entered college, women couldn’t be hired into most high-powered jobs.  But the 1964 Civil Rights Act changed that. People assumed women would soon be half the CEOs of the Fortune 500, half the scientists and engineers, 50% of congress.  They expected it to take about 30 years.

Change has been dramatic. In some cases, too dramatic: For example, more women than men enter college now. Nonetheless, after 50 years, women are 4.6% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 19% of the Science faculty at MIT, and just 19% of Congress! Why so slow?

50 years ago, people thought all you had to do was open the doors, let women in, and wait: Time would take care of the rest.  They were wrong.  Behind the obvious barrier of not being able to get a job, were a series of invisible barriers. Each had to be identified and dismantled. I hope my personal story of this 50-year revolution illustrates why social change is slow, but also how barriers can be removed.

I went to Radcliffe College (the women’s division of Harvard in my era.) Junior year, I signed up for an introductory Biology class taught by James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. I walked into Watson’s class looking for the meaning of life. And found it! The secret of life was DNA.  After class I raced to Watson’s office and asked if I could work in his lab. He said, “Yes.” The science was incredibly exciting.  I thought it highly likely I’d make a Nobel-prize winning discovery.  Everyone else seemed to.

But I had no thought of getting a PhD or being a professor. After a week in Jim’s lab, it was obvious to me why there weren’t any women professors.  These molecular biologists worked 70 hours a week.  Their wives stayed home and took care of the family. How could anyone do both full time jobs? So my goal was to win a Nobel prize before I was 30, quit science, and be a wife and mother.

But it didn’t happen.  Jim Watson decided I should get a PhD, my husband and I divorced, and in 1973, MIT offered me a faculty job.  So there I was at age 30 – no Nobel prize, no husband, a PhD and a job offer.  Time for plan B: I decided not to remarry, not to have children, and to accept the MIT job.

If anyone had told me in 1973 that there was anything discriminatory about this situation, I wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. It didn’t occur to me that a profession in which half the population cannot participate equally and also have children is not an equal opportunity occupation.

Off I went to be a junior faculty member at MIT to work on the genetic basis of cancer. I certainly didn’t expect to encounter gender discrimination because science is supposed to be merit-based. The cancer research I worked on was thrilling. In a short time, many of the genes that cause human cancers were discovered.

But it turned out I was wrong: Gradually, I came to see that gender discrimination did exist after all – even for women who chose not to have children. What I saw was that when a man and a woman made discoveries of equal scientific importance, the man and his discovery were valued more highly than the woman and her discovery.  This seemed so implausible that I had to witness many examples before I believed it. There were still so few women in science that it took a long time. But after 20 years I knew it was true.

It dawned on me that this discovery was a profound insight into the human mind. It was revolutionary.  In fact, it deserved a Nobel prize. Unfortunately, as I learned later, my discovery had already been made.  It was psychologists who documented the irrationality of our brains, and our inability to make accurate judgments of even simple numerical facts if the conclusions contradict our unconscious biases.

You can demonstrate unconscious gender bias simply by making copies of a research article, putting a man’s name on half the copies and a woman’s on the other half, and sending the two versions out for review: Reviewers judge the identical work to be better if they believe it was done by a man. Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter if the reviewers are men or women!

Incidentally, my Nobel prize was awarded to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman for discovering our inability to make accurate judgments that contradict our unconscious biases.

For a long time I was afraid to tell anyone my discovery, because in a meritocracy, if you complain of unequal treatment people will say you’re whining, or think you just aren’t good enough. But in 1994, after measuring all the labs in my building with a tape measure to prove that women really did have less lab space than men, I got up the courage to ask another woman professor whether she had ever observed this strange bias.  She had. And so had 14 of the other 15 tenured women scientists, we learned. It was in polling them that we discovered that 30 years after the Civil Rights Act, only 8% of the MIT science faculty were women.  At Harvard, 5%. I suspect Professor Deborah Belle would tell us Boston University’s numbers were similar.

Together, the women faculty had the courage to ask MIT to help us collect data to analyze this problem further. We learned that the unconscious undervaluation of women’s work can cause women of equal accomplishment not to be hired, and cause women who are hired to receive fewer resources for their research. The women were marginalized. No wonder there were still so few women science professors 20 years ago. More amazing was that the ones who were there were so successful*.

Our results became public in 1999**.  We were inundated by e-mail from professional women all over the country, and overseas too, who wrote to say they had experienced the exact same problems.

How do you fix problems this difficult?  In 2001, MIT’s President and Provost set out to do just that. Our Provost then was Bob Brown, now your President.  I can recall sitting in Bob’s office at MIT saying, “Bob, how on earth can you fix these problems?” “Nancy,” he replied, “we’re engineers. Engineers solve problems.”

Over the next several years I watched Bob Brown, the engineer, change MIT, and hence society. In 2001, women faculty were still afraid to take family leave to have a babyFive years later, the problem was 90% solved. Bob oversaw the writing of new family leave policies, and made them routine so today, the stigma of women taking family leave to have a baby while also being a top-notch scientist has largely been eliminated. In 2001, a new computer science building was in the planning stage. Bob had the plans redrawn to include a large visible daycare center.  Today essentially all junior women faculty at MIT have children.  Not as hard a problem to address as we had imagined. Other inequities were also quickly remedied, by committees, which review data and propose solutions.

And what about the unconscious bias itself?  Just two years ago, a study from Yale documented that science professors in American universities still favor John over Jennifer and would pay him a higher salary, even though their CVs are identical. However, other research shows that unconscious biases lessen over time: not because time passes, but because people work for change. Suddenly we look around and say, “You mean women used to hide the fact they were pregnant? You must be joking.”

If you asked me to name the greatest discoveries of the past 50 years, alongside things like the internet and the Higgs particle, I would include the discovery of unconscious biases and the extent to which stereotypes about gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and age deprive people of equal opportunity in the workplace and equal justice in society.

This is where you come in, Class of 2014.  50 years ago we didn’t know enough to create a society in which women and men could participate equally at work and at home, and we didn’t have the research that shows why it’s so important that they do.

Despite enormous progress, this revolution isn’t over.  There are industries – venture capital, Silicon Valley, the biotech start-ups right here in Boston – whose leaders seem not to have heard of the Civil Rights Act.

I realize, 2014-ers, that your top priority is to find work you love, and figure out how to get someone to pay you to do it.  How can you complete a social revolution too?

Because you’re 50 years smarter than we were. You know this revolution won’t be completed by women alone, but by men and women working together.  Together, you’ll insist on beliefs that are obvious to you, but that my generation had to learn so slowly and painfully.  If you look around and see that the people you work or study with all look like you, you’ll know something’s wrong, and change it. If you see that one group of people isn’t succeeding as rapidly as another, you won’t hypothesize that it’s because they’re genetically inferior, you’ll look for the barriers that explain why.  If an inflexible work place makes it impossible for you to be full partners at home while achieving your ambitions at work, like 16 women faculty at MIT you’ll get together and change institutions.

Completing this revolution won’t happen by the passage of time, but because you make it happen.  I look forward to the world you will create.


* Of the 16 tenured women faculty in Science who asked MIT to study this issue, 4 have won the US National Medal of Science and 11 are members of the National Academies of Science or Engineering.

** “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty at MIT” in The MIT Faculty News Letter, XI No 4 (1999).