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MIT’s Nancy Hopkins Speaks Today on Gender Parity

BU women faculty’s status improved since Brown’s arrival


Deborah Belle sat in an MIT auditorium last spring at an event celebrating the institution’s female scientists. The keynote speaker had been a major force for change in the university’s recruitment and promotion of, and pay scale for, female faculty: Nancy Hopkins, MIT’s Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology. It was Hopkins, most people knew, who in 2005 famously walked out on former Harvard president Lawrence Summer’s speech suggesting that women may not have the same innate abilities in math and science as men. Deep into Hopkins’ lecture, Belle, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychology, saw a familiar face flash across the projector screen.

“There was Bob Brown’s picture and name,” says Belle, referring to BU President Robert A. Brown. Belle remembered that as MIT provost, Brown had cochaired with Hopkins a council that reformed discriminatory practices against female scientists. A lightbulb went on. “I thought, wow, we’ve got to get an additional, larger audience at BU to continue this conversation,” says Belle, director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program.

That larger audience convenes today at 3 p.m. in the Metcalf Trustees Ballroom, when Brown introduces Hopkins at a presentation titled Mirages of Equality: The Changing Status of Women in Science (1971–2011). The event, sponsored by the Office of the University Provost and the WGSS program, is more than a reunion of two former colleagues; it’s an opportunity to reflect on how much Brown has changed BU’s image as a less-than-welcoming place for women and to outline what remains to be done to achieve greater gender equity University-wide.

“This was a campus that was very inhospitable to thinking about women as a group that might be disadvantaged and might need focused efforts to create a level playing field,” says Belle, a former chair of the faculty networking group Women in Science & Engineering (WISE).

Carol Neidle, a CAS professor of linguistics, who is active in WISE, says the legacy of that period has still not been totally erased. “But,” she says, “Bob Brown immediately set a very different tone. Through his words and actions, he has promoted a climate where bias is not tolerated.”

Soon after taking office in September 2005, Brown met with general faculty and projected salary figures onto a screen, breaking them down by gender and rank—assistant, associate, and full professor—for each department. The presentation was seen by faculty as a big step forward, largely because the University had stopped reporting salary figures to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1984, leaving faculty in the dark as to how their salaries compared to peers’ nationwide. Brown restored reports to the association in 2006.

“We went from zero information to a lot of information,” says Alice Cronin-Golomb, a CAS professor of psychology and former WISE cochair, who heard about Brown’s decision while on sabbatical. “The problem with that was that we saw the gender difference right there on the screen.”

So, of course, did Brown. In 2007, according to the AAUP, most private universities in or near Boston paid female faculty at a more equitable rate than BU did. Female full professors, the least equitably paid here among the three professorial ranks, received about 89 percent of male professors’ salaries. Since then, salaries have steadily increased across all ranks, for both men and women. Female professors on the Charles River Campus are now paid 91 percent of what their male colleagues make. And while BU still lags behind most of its local peer institutions in salary equity, it leads the pack in the percent of average salary increases across the board. Female assistant professors saw a 21 percent jump over the past three academic years.

Brown says recruiting and retaining female faculty are two of his greatest challenges. “There’s a pipeline effect,” he says, “It goes all the way back to the beginning of someone’s interest in science and technology. The pipeline leaks all the way up.” Brown, a chemical engineer, says many women who express interest in science and technology change course as they move through the education system. One reason, he says, is that women who are interested in having a family are often discouraged by the demands of the tenure process and question whether they want to take on both.

He and his wife, Beverly Brown, a nationally respected biochemist, know this from personal experience. Beverly Brown decided to pursue corporate research because it offered a more family-friendly lifestyle than most academic settings.

Beverly Brown, whose work with BU is pro bono, has also actively supported female faculty, particularly those in the sciences. She sits on the board of WISE and of GWISE, a similar board for graduate students, she lectures often on topics from networking to running effective meetings, and once a semester she meets with WISE@Warren, a group of women freshmen who live on Warren Towers’ science and engineering floor.

“They have a cohort that they can stay close to as they move through college,” she says of the freshmen. “That may result in them not leaving science and engineering.”

Sheryl Grace, a College of Engineering associate professor of mechanical engineering and former WISE chair, says she still sees students who think raising a family does not mix well with a life in academia. “We often hear our PhD students say, ‘I wouldn’t want your life,’” she says.

Statistics from BU’s Office of Institutional Research illustrate the problem: the number of women pursuing doctorates in the sciences or engineering has remained relatively constant since 2005, at around 390 candidates each year, compared to 680 men.

“All you can do at the institutional level,” says Robert Brown, “is make everybody hypersensitive to the work-life balance issues and try to give faculty—all of our junior faculty, but especially the women—as much support as you can.”

In the last five years the University has recruited more female than male faculty in science and engineering, according to the Office of Institutional Research. In 2006, roughly 30 percent of the faculty in CAS, ENG, and Sargent College were female (145 women to 488 men). In 2011, that number had risen to 36 percent, with 34 new female and 8 new male hires.

Brown has filled high-level administrative positions with women as well, appointing earth scientist Jean Morrison University provost and chief academic officer in 2010, Tracy Schroeder vice president for information systems and technology in 2009, and political scientist and women’s studies scholar Virgina Sapiro dean of Arts & Sciences in 2007. He also created an ombuds office, as recommended by the Council for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion, and appointed Francine Montemurro as its head. Today, nearly half of the University’s deans are women.

“Dr. Brown set the expectation early in his tenure, for both campuses of the University, that BU was to be a meritocracy,” says Karen Antman, provost of the Medical Campus and dean of the School of Medicine, “and that diversity broadly defined was important for great research universities.”

Other changes too have made BU a more welcoming place for women and their supporters. Faculty now write for publications such as Gender & Society, which female faculty say was discouraged before Brown. The student-run Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, formerly the Women’s Center, opened three years ago in the George Sherman Union basement after decades of lobbying for a space on campus. And since 2008, the University’s maternity policy allows both women and men to take time off, including in cases of adoption.

“For me the transformation is incredible,” Belle says. “When top leadership is clear that this is the way we are doing business, the problem can be solved. But I think also that eternal vigilance is necessary. You need to keep your eye on the ball or you can slide back.”

While many female faculty say they are pleased with the positive change in recent years, they want to be sure the University continues its march toward gender parity. Salary gaps still exist. In CAS, for example, female professors are paid 87 percent of their male colleagues’ salary.

Sapiro says she has worked hard to eliminate pay disparities by gender since she arrived at Arts & Sciences in 2007. She points to the wide range of fields across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences at CAS. “Some of these fields have more women than others; the fields in which there tend to be the most female faculty are some of the ones in which salaries tend to be somewhat lower, say, the humanities other than philosophy, the social sciences other than economics, the sciences, while some of the ones that have the fewest women—philosophy within the humanities, economics in the social sciences, the natural sciences—are the higher paid fields. If you look at salaries by gender within fields, you will find little gender difference, rank by rank.”

Every year, Sapiro looks closely at faculty who are similarly situated in field, rank, and accomplishment. If she detects significant gender differences, she says, she works to correct them through salary adjustments.

Many faculty would also like to see more women in leadership positions within departments. In CAS, BU’s largest college, there are 3 women chairs, in archaeology, astronomy, and sociology, in 24 departments. That’s up from 2007, when the college had no female chairs, but it’s still only 12.5 percent.

One problem, says Brown, is that BU traditionally appoints chairs from within the department, so appointments have been drawn from a relatively small pool of candidates.

Cronin-Golomb, who also attended Hopkins’ presentation last spring, was struck by how the status of the MIT scientist and her colleagues had evolved. But “as she was speaking, many of us in the audience were nodding and saying, ‘That’s not gone yet,’” she says. “It’s a big mistake treating this as historical and patting ourselves on the back and saying, ‘We’re past this now.’ Because I don’t think we are.”

Nancy Hopkins, MIT’s Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology, will present Mirages of Equality: The Changing Status of Women in Science (1971–2011) at 3 p.m. today, Tuesday, November 8, in the Metcalf Trustees Ballroom, One Silber Way, ninth floor. A reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, email the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

One Comment on MIT’s Nancy Hopkins Speaks Today on Gender Parity

  • Nathan on 11.08.2011 at 3:17 pm

    More position than pay

    “If you look at salaries by gender within fields, you will find little gender difference, rank by rank.

    This brings us full circle to the differences of 50 years ago. Women in offices made less than men in offices, the big reason being that all the typists were women and all the Vice Presidents were men. Even with equal pay for equal work, even with equal opportunity to equal jobs, if the job distribution is unequalm the pay result will be unequal.

    The next logical step will trample on entrenched university egos and social philosophies: Reducing the pay and prestige of philosophy to the level of the other humanities, reducing the pay and prestige of economics to the level of the other social sciences, and parity between SMG, CAS and the many schools at BU. Unless BU embraces the arguably Socialist principle of equal pay for unequal work ***, I don’t see reaching parity in pay.

    *** read Equality by Edward Bellamy http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7303 for a full explanation of that phrase

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