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Author Kate Zernike dissects the years-long fight for gender equality at MIT

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins was 19 when she began to meet her destiny. She walked into a classroom at Harvard to hear a lecture by James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA.

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NANCY HOPKINS: And at the end of the hour, I was a convert to this science. So I didn't think about being - what it'd mean exactly to be a girl who wanted to do that. I just knew I had to do that.

SHAPIRO: That's how she described her early career for the Infinite History project at MIT, the same institution that turned her into a reluctant activist for gender equality. By the 1990s, Hopkins had tenure on the faculty at MIT. She had ambitious plans for genetic research, but she faced hurdle after hurdle in getting the same opportunities, even workspace, as men. So she did what a scientist does. She quantified it.

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HOPKINS: So I began collecting data and measuring lab space with a tape measure so I could convince my administrators that I deserved to have an additional two-inch square feet of space. But nothing happened as quickly as I wanted it to happen.

SHAPIRO: Then she talked to other women. They also documented what they went through, and it grew into a landmark study that found widespread discrimination against female professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

KATE ZERNIKE: The idea that they had been able to collect this information and make their case to the university really struck me as kind of a model of social change.

SHAPIRO: That's journalist Kate Zernike, who was first to report on the discrimination study for The Boston Globe in 1999. She revisits the story in a new book called "The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, And The Fight For Women In Science." I talked with Zernike about why Hopkins and her colleagues were at first hesitant to complain.

ZERNIKE: It starts with small slights, things that you probably wouldn't complain about. But gradually, over time, they realize that it starts to add up to, you know, less money, less space in the lab, all sorts of things that really do hinder their ability to do science. So it was really that they were so passionate about their science that they didn't complain until these problems were really getting in the way of them doing science.

SHAPIRO: Can I just ask - you are an incredibly respected reporter, but you are not a scientist, and this book has some really complicated science in it. How did you wrap your head around, like, the real hard science that's in here?

ZERNIKE: Yeah. You know, well, for one thing, I have to say, I had great teachers in Nancy and the other people who she was doing science with, so they were really patient with me in explaining. But it was also really important to get that science right. I think what really helped me in the end was just to see all these experiments like a story and to walk people through that story.

SHAPIRO: One of the details that I found so interesting was you say these women sort of thought that they were alone. And one reason for that is that the trailblazing women didn't want to talk about the challenges they faced because they didn't want to discourage others. But that had the effect of making those who came after them thinking, well, if nobody else is going through this, it must just be me or it must be my imagination.

ZERNIKE: Right, exactly. And that's one of the reasons that I called the book "The Exceptions." Not only were these women exceptional in their talent and their brilliance, but when they faced these problems, they thought, well, this is just me. It's just a situation. It's just a personality conflict. It wasn't until really late in the game in their careers that they thought, oh, no, this is happening to other women. And one of the reasons they couldn't see that is that there were so few of them.

SHAPIRO: You know, you said that one reason this story appealed to you is that it was such a model for social change. But at one point, your main character, Nancy Hopkins, faces a fork in the road. There's a choice she has to make about whether to file a lawsuit against MIT. And I think it kind of points to a larger question about whether it's more productive to make change from inside or outside an institution, work within its confines or take a more confrontational approach, collaborate or go adversarial. So did writing this book make you think differently about that question more broadly?

ZERNIKE: Absolutely. And I think particularly, you know, I was writing this from 2018 until last year, and there's been so much social movement, social change, social protest in those years. And Nancy didn't get everything she wanted in the end, but they really were able to work from within the system. I think some of the men in the book would argue that you have to work within the system, but, of course, they were allies. So I think this really speaks to finding those allies.

SHAPIRO: How do you view the men who created and upheld the culture of discrimination? I couldn't quite tell if they were malicious or oblivious or what.

ZERNIKE: That's a great question. So I wanted to put this in context and just show how everyone was thinking about this issue at the time. I think maybe those men and also the women were really victims of their time and victims of the context. We just weren't seeing how outrageous some of this stuff was. You know, one thing, for instance, in 1979, Nancy wants to teach a class with another man, and they're excited about it. And the head of her department, who's a very thoughtful guy who cares deeply about good teaching, says you can't do that because undergraduates won't take information from a woman at the front of a lecture hall. And at the time, Nancy agreed with him because she thought he was right. And I think there is a tendency to dismiss the idea of unconscious bias. We all think, oh, yeah, I know what that is. I don't have that. But I think this book can remind us that, in fact, we are all struggling with this. We're all pushing back on it at all times.

SHAPIRO: So what's the larger takeaway here, that if you think this is happening, you're probably right, even if people tell you it isn't; or don't settle for reassurances that everything's fine if you know in your heart that it's not? Like, how do we generalize from this experience that these women had?

ZERNIKE: I think there are a couple of things. One, again, as I say, I think it just helps to understand or to see through someone else's eyes - in this case, Nancy's - how this happens and how it accumulates. But I think the lessons are that, yes, we do need to speak up about this. And I also think you don't have to do it in an adversarial way. These women went about it in a very scientific, almost clinical way, and they really made their case persuasively. MIT, as you say, did not have to be forced into a lawsuit. They did the right thing. I think the other lesson is, you know, this country is now facing yet another debate about affirmative action. And these women were almost all of them affirmative action hires in the '70s, which was the first big push for it. And they all really trusted in the meritocracy. They all thought that if they just did their science, merit would rise to the top. And what they found is that a true meritocracy does not really exist.

SHAPIRO: You know, the book briefly touches on the progress that MIT made after the report. But I'm curious about the present day. Do you know how MIT is doing now on some of these questions?

ZERNIKE: Yeah, it's actually quite incredible. So MIT is now essentially, as of this year, run by women. So the head of the corporation, the president, the director of research, the provost, the chancellor, dean of science are all women. In the School of Engineering, which is sort of the marquee school at MIT, there are eight departments, and five of them are led by women. So that is incredibly striking. But the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine did a study in 2018, and they found that 50% of science faculty women felt that they had been sexually harassed. But they weren't talking about overt sexual assaults or even sexual coercion. It really was the sort of intellectual marginalization, assumptions that women couldn't do science. And that is really the final hurdle for this fight.

SHAPIRO: Kate Zernike's new book is called "The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, And The Fight For Women In Science." Thanks a lot.

ZERNIKE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.