Cell Bio—A WICB Special SessionCell Bio

Thoru Pederson (002)

Shortly after publication of “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT and the Fight for Women in Science” by Kate Zernike (Scribner, 2023), ASCB was asked by a member to consider convening a session on the book at the Cell Bio annual meeting, not only to salute the author and Dr. Hopkins, but to create an open forum of substance—not just the usual Q&A that typify most book events. WICB Chair Mary Munson enthusiastically accepted the suggestion and former WICB Chair Sandra Masur made the invitations, with the panel rounded out by Dr. Lotte Baylin, an emerita professor of management at MIT. The room was packed and the great majority of the audience was trainees. After Dr. Masur’s welcome and introductions, she asked each of the panelists a round of questions.

Dr. Hopkins spoke of her initial difficulty in obtaining some additional space in the department for her expanding zebrafish program, sparking her interest in space allocation overall. She then spoke of her measuring colleagues’ lab space and the revelation of a substantial skewing of less held by women faculty (adjusted for career stage etc. vs. men). She then spoke of the letter she drafted and the turning point in the story, when she asked a colleague, Mary-Lou Pardue, to read the letter. She decided to sign it too, and to help get others to do so. When I read the book, this paragraph moved me greatly, as it was so clearly a moment Hopkins had not anticipated and which made all the difference. Subsequent factors, including a very supportive dean, came into play, but Pardue’s decision was catalytic.

Kate Zernike described how she wrote the story of MIT admitting to discrimination against women faculty for the Boston Globe, and then—years later—recognized how profound this was in academia and decided to write the book. She explained how she went about the endeavor, including calling out some of the most reprehensible actions of men in Dr. Hopkins’ department. Dr. Masur mused whether the fact that a grandfather of Zernicke and her father, who were both scientists, played a role in her decision to write the Globe story and the book. (Her paternal grandfather won the 1953 Nobel Prize in Physics.)

There are many “what-if’s” in this story. What if Hopkins had asked a different colleague to read the draft letter? Perhaps they would have had a different response and not offered to sign or help mobilize. (There was one tenured woman on the science faculty who chose not to sign it.) What if the Dean at the time, Robert Birgeneau, had not been as responsive and supportive as he was? And what if MIT’s President at the time, Charles Vest, had not been open-minded enough to see the clear pattern of discrimination against women that Hopkins analysis and the letter had revealed? But a crucial factor, notwithstanding Pardue, was the third panelist, Lotte Bailyn. Although the letter led to a committee, whose 150-page internal report to the Dean and President was confidential, Dr. Bailyn astutely recognized that there also needed to be an open report to the faculty. At the time this report needed to be created, the Chair of the MIT Faculty could have been an electrical engineer, a chemist, or an economist (as it had just been). But as fate would have it, the new Chair was Professor Bailyn. The fact that a person whose very scholarship was management, and whose MIT experiences as a leader had informed her impactfully of how the various chains of command operated, was a stroke of great fortune. In both her opening comments and her subsequent ones, it was clear why Dr. Bailyn carries the admiration and stature at MIT that she did and still does. Inter alia, she explained several do’s and don’ts that made it possible for the women behind the report to make their case in the most powerful way.

As wonderful as the panelists were in the first part of the program, I never had anticipated the engagement and cogency of the many students who came forward, one after the other, to the floor mike. Many applauded the panelists as they started but then asked excellent questions. “Do you think the MIT case has had a national impact?” “Here is what my university is doing—do you think it is enough?” “My university is way behind on this—how can I possibly have any impact?” “I teach at a non-research college and yet see this discrimination against women faculty in other ways—not lab space. Can you help me reach out to others at teaching institutions?” The panelists were clearly moved by these students and professors and offered strong encouragement. At the close of the session, the panelists were surrounded by students and others and the vibrant dialogue continued, concluding only due to another WICB event about to start in the room.

This surely was one of the most significant WICB sessions ever, and one of the most significant overall at any ASCB meeting I have attended in more than half a century. Kate is now at the New York Times, mainly covering abortion in America. Nancy has retired but is active in efforts on behalf of equality for women in STEM. Lotte is retired but active in the intellectual circles of Cambridge and has just completed a co-authored book on the various perspectives on retirement that people hold.

There was a time when women students at MIT were not allowed to wear hats. The claim was that maybe the hats would catch on fire in chemistry labs. Would they be leaning in—not like Sheryl Sandberg said but down near the flame? I suppose a far-sighted student without corrective glasses might have but… really? Katharine Dexter McCormick, the second woman to earn a B.S. from MIT obeyed the rule and then, years later, endowed a women’s dorm (Pederson, 2018).

Women at MIT now can wear hats (though no longer the vogue they were in McCormick’s time). Women who come to MIT now know they are likely to be treated equally. Women who join the faculty at MIT can feel the same. And women who dream of becoming President of MIT can know that they could possibly be the third.

Changes usually take a long time, and they always take strong leaders, like Kate, Nancy, and Lotte. And they also take a “change of phase”, the phenomenon in optical microscopy for which Kate’s grandfather won the Nobel Prize. Fate or not, this session exceeded all expectations, thanks to WICB, the panelists, the trainees who came, and that initial suggestion by an ASCB member.

References: Pederson, T. 2018. The fortunate intersection of schizophrenia and the Pill. FASEB J. 32(1):1 -2. (This essay describes the role of MIT alumna Katharine McCormick in funding of the birth control Pill).

About the Author:

University of Massachusetts Medical School