MIT doyenne: science still a man’s world

Nancy Hopkins identifies remaining obstacles to gender equality

March 14, 2013

An unconscious bias against women is one of the final remaining barriers to gender equality in science, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said.

Nancy Hopkins also argued that female scientists are being held back by the difficulties involved in pursuing academic careers and raising children at the same time.

In a speech at Trinity College Dublin on 6 March, ahead of International Women’s Day, Professor Hopkins said that despite action by MIT, the number of female scientists and engineers at the institution (17 per cent of the total in 2011) remained low.

Psychological research has shown that “men and women slightly overvalue work if they think it was done by a man, and slightly undervalue work if they think it was done by a woman”, she said.

Drawing on her own experience, Professor Hopkins found that “when a woman and a man made scientific discoveries of equal importance, neither her discovery nor the woman was valued equally to the man’s discovery or the man…Sometimes the woman got no credit at all. She was invisible.”

During the 1990s, Professor Hopkins was one of 16 women to write to MIT’s dean of science alleging systematic but invisible and unconscious gender bias at the institution. It accepted that the problem existed and recruited many more female faculty members, but the issue remained unresolved, she argued.

There was now far less “stigma” surrounding family leave policies, but the pressures of raising a family were still “significant” barriers to women achieving senior positions, Professor Hopkins added.

Meanwhile, in a separate development, a recently appointed professor of English literature at the University of Glamorgan has launched a research project into how the subject is affected by the gender balance among the student body (largely made up of women) and lecturers (most of them male).

Diana Wallace said: “It matters because the current undervaluation of the humanities in higher education is also an undervaluation of the predominately female students and the rather fewer female staff who study and teach those subjects.”

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