Date October 19, 2023
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Journalist Kate Zernike speaks at Brown on 21st century gender discrimination in the sciences

Zernike, who wrote “The Exceptions” about women faculty and the fight for fairness at MIT, talked with Brown community members about the challenges facing women in science — and what can be done.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It took Nancy Hopkins, a pioneering cancer researcher, 20 years to accept that she was the subject of gender discrimination at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Even journalist Kate Zernike, who broke the story of MIT’s admission that Hopkins and other women faculty had faced discrimination on campus, took time to recognize that the story was big — it was 1999 and not 1959, Zernike thought, and her own career and her generation’s accomplishments were evidence of the ample opportunity available to women.

What shook Hopkins’ faith in the idea of meritocracy at her school was not meager lab space, male peers taking credit for her discoveries, or losing a popular course she had developed to a male faculty member. It was commiserating with another woman on the faculty, and then a dozen others, who’d had similar experiences.

And what struck Zernike was the way the women on campus described their unequal treatment:

“It did not look like what they thought discrimination looked like,” Zernike said during an Oct. 17 event at Brown University. “It was less overt.”

The women called this “21st century discrimination,” Zernike said: a subtle and pernicious marginalization that ultimately accelerated. As young women in science, they were often treated well or even celebrated. But over time, as male counterparts were groomed for leadership positions and awarded prizes, women were frequently ignored and in the worst cases, pushed aside.

“Marginalization and lack of representation often happens unintentionally or unconsciously and sometimes despite the very best of intentions,” Zernike said.

The journalist came to Brown to tell the story of the fight for equal opportunity at MIT as a catalyst for a discussion about 21st century discrimination against women in the sciences, and what to do about it. She joined Carney Institute for Brain Science Director Diane Lipscombe, chair of Brown’s Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty, for a conversation moderated by President Christina H. Paxson at the John Carter Brown Library. The event was organized by the Office of the President and the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.

Zernike described how her 1999 Boston Globe article about Hopkins and MIT went viral, through print and cable news, as women at other institutions and fields related to the group of vindicated scientists.

“The New York Times put the story on its front page that Tuesday and suddenly all the key players in this MIT story were flooded with emails from women around the country and around the world saying, ‘This is my story — and I thought I was the only one who felt this way,’” Zernike said.

While MIT’s president reacted by becoming a leader in efforts to get more women into science foundations and universities, hiring more women faculty and elevating women in leadership positions, that didn’t fix the problem, said Zernike, who expanded her article into a 2023 book titled, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.

Recognizing that women have been historically underrepresented in faculty ranks nationally and on its own campus, Brown has been evaluating the status of women faculty since 2021. After a data-driven analysis focused on representation, equity and inclusion, the task force issued a report last spring and an update this week. Lipscombe shared some of its takeaways with the members of the Brown community gathered for Zernike’s talk.

“There are a few areas where we’re not back in the 1960s, 70s or 80s,” Lipscombe said. “There's been progress. Doors have been open — though not all the time.”

Lipscombe noted that as at other universities across the country, women are underrepresented on the Brown faculty relative to the national pool of Ph.D. candidates, a challenge that persists despite some progress. And some reports of “21st century discrimination” sounded similar, she said, to what Zernike described in her book.

The meritocracy myth

Nancy Hopkins didn’t identify as an activist or a feminist, Zernike said during the event at Brown; she was a talented researcher and educator who believed that if she just keeping doing good science, she would earn what she deserved.

MIT was a great example on which to focus, Zernike said, because of the school’s reputation as a “dynamic meritocracy” where hard work would invariably lead to success. Yet through her reporting and from the stories from women faculty in the 90s, it became clear that the idea of a pure meritocracy was marred by bias.

“The reality is: It's all a club,” Zernike said. “And so it matters who's putting you forward. All these small things matter. It's who belongs, what are the assessments, who has the playbook.”

Lipscombe broke down the idea of meritocracy even further by pointing out that in academia, a researcher’s work is reviewed by their peers, who likely bring their own biases to the process: “Who is measuring success?” Lipscombe asked. “What is merit? We all individually are defining that. And so it is not an exact science.”

After the process of writing the book, Zernike concluded that while the problem of gender discrimination tends to be worse in science, it certainly isn’t limited to that field.

“It's a broader story about women's history,” Zernike said. “Science crystallizes the issue, though, and the challenges, because we assume that science requires some sort of raw brilliance or genius — both men and women like to think that. And men and women tend to assign characteristics of genius to men. One of the effects of this is that women look at fields like math and physics and think, ‘Oh, I can't do that because I'm not a genius.’”

A conversation about the power of conversation

Zernike explained that the title of her book, “The Exceptions,” refers not only to the exceptional accomplishments and determination of her subjects but also the discrimination they faced and how they reacted.  Hopkins, for her part, went out of her way to explain what was happening to her at work as anything but gender discrimination.

“One of the ways that so many of these women told me they were able to keep going was to tell themselves this was just a one-off,” Zernike said. “This was not a pattern. This is the exception, not the rule.”

Zernike said the same thinking holds true today; that people and institutions may solve one problem (of salary inequities, for example, or underrepresentation) but don’t see the commonality in the experiences of marginalized groups, and therefore let other problems grow unchecked. And that feeds the larger, more amorphous issue of hostile culture and behavior, and of 21st century discrimination and marginalization.

“When you read the book, you see that everyone's kind of acting according to the role the culture laid out for them,” Zernike said. “It's not that these men had some animus toward Nancy Hopkins; they were just doing what they've been brought up in science to do. So yes, we do have to start changing some of our procedures.”

Students and faculty members at the event, as well as the speakers, mused aloud about potential solutions, including increased representation of women in leadership, recognition of service burdens placed disproportionately on women, personal acknowledgements of implicit bias, recognition and condemnation of explicit bias, and more.

Lipscombe suggested that group conversations about shared values, as well as about positive and negative experiences, are a start. She expressed gratitude for work that Brown’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity has done to encourage ongoing conversations within academic departments, rather than focusing on gender equity only in moments of perceived conflict. 

“Having these conversations when people are in a place where everybody can contribute, and can come to understand the barriers facing other people: That’s been incredibly impactful, certainly in my department,” Lipscombe said. “I really feel that it is very much about talking, conversation, appreciating and thinking about others, and speaking up when things don’t seem right.”

Through those conversations, patterns can be identified and larger problems may be revealed, while some concrete solutions may rise to the top. The challenge of access to childcare, for example — something Zernike, Paxson and Lipscombe agreed is crucial to professional success, while heads around the room nodded vigorously.

“It’s huge — huge,” Lipscombe said. “There should be a community level of support to ensure childcare in that relatively short period of time over the course of our career. There should be childcare options and they should be high quality and they should be affordable.”