Are We Missing the Point in the MIT Debate Over Measures of Equity?

By Christina Vogt

In the recent spate of arguments over the MIT decision to endorse measures of equity meant to foster participation for more females in academia, there have been several commentaries about the possibility of women feeling short-changed if the system were to unduly compensate them. The fact that some women have not always performed comparably to males based upon the number of publications credited to them or grant monies received, has raised the nagging question, " Are measures of equity justified?"

Last year, I interviewed several high level academics at a major southwestern research university. I believe differences in performance may be due to less lab space, funding, and perceived discrimination such as at MIT, but the most significant issue had not been addressed in the majority of last week's debates. The greatest gatekeeper for women in academia is inadequate compensation for childbearing and mothering. Traditionally, women have not only had a harder time getting to academia, but an even harder time staying there.

Academics careers, by nature, are time consuming and difficult. All the women professors I spoke to worked long hours and sacrificed to succeed. One woman said, "It's true that the people who do research are very determined people. Their jobs demand very long hours with little or no vacation time. Simply, talent is not enough. It requires talent and desire coupled with strong focus and commitment. And as one academician stated, "then, you need to work it out to get there."

Clearly, these tenured female academics I interviewed are not only the exception, but exceptional. Although they may have received less resources and encountered more challenges, job demands combined with the stresses of raising children made their careers overwhelming at times. This is the one domain where they were universally vocal about discrimination creating personal barriers.

According to the Director of the Robotics Lab, "As I said, I really cannot think of anything disagreeable in my graduate school days. Only since I have graduated have I actually noticed the ways in which it is harder. You see, the one thing is that you are always surrounded by people who aren't women and that starts to only become an issue when you have to deal with very gender-specific things such as having children. That's the one place that I have found things to be unreasonably difficult. And I am fighting them tooth and nail. I think fighting them is the only way you are going to change them."

In any field, this differential based upon biology cannot be changed. In that kind of competition women often lose because, all other things being equal, a man won't take maternity leave and there are more men to chose from. So, men are hired, retained and paid more than women are.

As a result of these obstacles, these women said female peers often lose the impetus to continue in the field. They simply drop out because they cannot take time off with their children. A science career path is conservative and their research cannot be postponed. Three months can be fatal. Even more, three years is the end of a career. If they have been out of the field and have not written a paper for three years, no one will hire them.

Very seldom are researchers given a second chance, as this chemistry professor was fortunate enough to have had. "I had a child, so I did another post doc. When my son got older, I decided to go for a tenured position. I continued my research, so I did not fall behind. But I did not teach, so, I was a second class citizen. I did not actually put my career on hold, but I decided it was going to be different."

Another chemistry professor stated, "My husband is also in academics. As much as men can encourage women, which means projecting their own set of values on a woman, I got a lot of encouragement." Many women academics have traditionally married male academics, which can be a double-edged sword. Although he may be supportive of his wife's career, the long hours and constant pressures, it is doubtful whether he would take time off from his demanding career to provide childcare. More than likely, the onus is still with the wife, and her career may be the one to suffer.

Nonetheless, in all cases, these women decided that they would not give up their careers for children. All state days of feeling like they were simply surviving. They had all felt blindlessly optimistic that they could have a career, husband, and family. However, all admit that juggling career and family was extremely draining -- more than they had anticipated -- both physically or psychologically.

What is the alternative for these women? According one woman, an MIT graduate and a computer science professor, "I could never be a nanny, not to my child or anyone else's'. I am not built like that. I have to be motivated by these crazy things where my attention span will be all over the place. That is my calling I guess." Another science professor made the decision to pursue an academic career, but she states was lucky to be in Europe where childcare is easier to get and of good quality.

This may be why so few women may go into academics. If we consider the school systems of Europe, college bound students are required to take four-years of high school math and science, and there are many women studying in all undergraduate sciences. Yet, they decide not to pursue science careers in academics and opt out for teaching. Why?

According to a female physics professor, "By the time they are 22 they can go into research. So, in fact you might find a higher percentage of girls than boys in math and science (in Italy). However, this is where the difference comes in. Women start thinking how hard it is to have a career in math and science -- how competitive it is -- and how incompatible it is with raising children. So at this point, some of them chicken out. And those who do not chicken out do, in fact, encounter a lot of difficulty. You find that you are in an academic career and that your reproductive clock ticks and your exactly when you are coming up for tenure. And then you have troubles with childcare."

In essence, the academics I interviewed felt varying degrees of academic support from their peers and institutions, openly complaining about work related discrimination in the realms of childcare. That is not to say that they did not experience other types of discrimination. They made allusions to gender differences, but felt that the discrimination is not personal in as much as it is just part of the male system. However, they recognized the male bastion of science and its male norms could seriously hamper women's accessibility to higher levels of career.

According to one physics professor, "So, they have an old boys' circle. They often hire a friend's recommendation and that is almost always a man. The men in engineering are not used yet to looking around for women. They have some cultural issues."

But in the long run, it is the maternity and childcare issues that may seriously hamper women in academics. It is perhaps this issue that explains women's lower productivity in more cases than men's, and it is this issue that must be seriously addressed.

Several alternatives could be offered to women such as lighter or no teaching loads, longer tenure cycles, nearby childcare, and shorter hours for them so they could do research and provide primary care. Further a woman's career path could be less traditonal and more relaxed. "If they want to get more women, they have to look at a variety of women and not just the ones who have had the traditional science career track (a non-tenured position in research, for example)."