Book celebrating MIT’s 150th anniversary puts “gender on the table”

Lotte BailynLotte Bailyn, T. Wilson (1953) Professor of Management, Emerita; Professor of Organization Studies

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 23, 2010 — Celebrating MIT’s upcoming 150th anniversary, a new book titled Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision takes an in-depth look at many of the turning points that helped define the Institute. Covering pivotal moments such as the battle between pure science and industrial sponsorship in the early 20th century, MIT’s rapid expansion during World War II because of its defense work, and the conflict between Cold War gadgetry and the humanities, the book shows how these historical events have made a lasting impact.

In a chapter called “Putting Gender on the Table,” written by MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Lotte Bailyn, she describes how a report written by a group of women professors in the 1990s showed that female faculty in the School of Science were subject to “subtle unintentional discrimination.” While reports such as this typically gathered dust on bookshelves, Bailyn explains that this was not the case for the “MIT Report.”

Bailyn writes, “This was an issue waiting to be heard. … When women scientists who had been successful at the country’s leading science and technology university described their experiences, the issue became a legitimate reality not only for women in universities, but for all professional women. And when MIT’s president stated in his introductory comments to the MIT Report that ‘I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception, … but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance,’ … the genie was out of the bottle.”

Largely due to the president’s admission of discrimination, the MIT Report received a tremendous amount of media attention, says Bailyn, who was chair of MIT faculty at the time and helped edit the public version of the report. Inquiries came from institutions eager to hear more, particularly about how they could conduct similar studies. MIT Prof. Nancy Hopkins, who initiated the inquiry, was invited to the White House. And funding agencies such as the Ford Foundation provided grants for MIT to work with other institutions to spread the word.

Soon after the MIT Report was disseminated, MIT Provost Robert Brown asked the deans in each of the other MIT schools, including Sloan, to conduct similar studies. As each school completed its study, their reports showed the same types of discrimination and marginalization as that first report by the School of Science. In 2000, the president and provost created the Council on Faculty Diversity. Since then, there have been significant improvements in the number of women faculty at MIT as well as the appointment of women to top decision-making administrative positions, including that of president.

“I’m sure this report played a role in making advances not only at MIT, but at other schools as well. It helped start a more proactive approach to the problem of discrimination against women faculty in science and engineering and it spread beyond that to other professions,” says Bailyn. “It’s a very interesting story of how a committed person can engage a group of people and collectively make a big change. It’s clear that the repercussions of the MIT Report continue to this day, both at MIT and elsewhere.”

Becoming MIT was published by MIT Press and edited by MIT Prof. David Kaiser.

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