Fixing the system from the inside out
Prof. Nancy Hopkins on harnessing data, building coalitions, and choosing the moments to drive equity shifts for women faculty at MIT
In September 2022, Nancy Hopkins, Amgen Professor of Biology Emerita, joined members of the Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) at MIT Open Learning to share her lifetime of experience in driving gender equity. Faculty and leaders from over a dozen universities across the world had joined J-WEL’s week-long workshop on University Governance. Hopkins’ personal story offered lessons for all.
The crucial moment in her story came in 1999, when MIT made news by publicly acknowledging a systemic pattern of gender discrimination in its allocation of resources for female faculty, sparking sweeping changes across the Institute to level the playing field for women in academia. The groundwork for these shifts, Prof. Hopkins explained, came from four years of data gathering, storytelling, coordination, and collaboration with the MIT administration.
The movement that linked women faculty in MIT’s School of Science, their colleagues across the Institute, and MIT’s top leadership took concrete steps to challenge the unconscious bias (and outright discrimination) that held women back. Female faculty had not been paid equally to their male counterparts; their budgets and funding opportunities were limited; their work didn’t get the same level of consideration or accolades from peers and supervisors; they were allocated smaller lab spaces; and too often they were excluded from new opportunities that would have led to professional advancement.
Journalist Kate Zernike has captured the remarkable story in her new book The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. During her J-WEL talk, Prof. Hopkins shares her personal experience — from her early career as a faculty member in the first years of affirmative action, to slowly coming to the realization that she was being marginalized in her own department, to the last straw that pushed her to fight back, to finding other women who shared her experience and enrolled in the coalition she led, building allies in the administration to enable systematic shifts in policy.
Prof. Hopkins’ focus is on the process of creating change. She notes a number of key factors that made it possible to drive improvements in a permanent, positive, and community-driven way. First, she points to the power of numbers when she found first one and then a dozen colleagues in the School of Science who joined together to advocate for themselves. Next she cites the dual power of data and storytelling in getting the Dean and other leadership to understand the problems and address them. She then emphasizes how crucial it was that they worked within the existing system, navigating the university’s pre-committees and subcommittees and other appropriate channels.
“We wanted to be sure that when MIT heard about this that they knew that we had worked collaboratively with the administration. It was not confrontational. It could easily have been–I seriously thought of suing MIT,” says Hopkins. “Because, if this had not happened, I would have had to leave MIT, sue MIT, I don’t know what I would have done — quit science? But instead this happened. So it was this productive collaboration that led to fixing these problems.”
Finally, she underscores the dramatic response when they shared their story publicly, first in the MIT faculty newsletter and then in the news media.
“But more overwhelming than [the media coverage] was the email response that came in as a result of this publicity. And it came from professional women — scientists, engineers, people in labs, women from many different lines of work — just a deluge. These letters really all said well, you won’t believe it, but the same problems exist at my university. This turned out to be really a universal problem. And this went on for years.”
Of course, the work continues today, at MIT and around the world. The more we share these stories and learn from them, the more impactful change we can create. J-WEL’s network of educational innovators collects, enables, and shares exactly such stories of change. Members will have access to the complete video, including a lively discussion with university administrators and Faculty Director Anjali Sastry; contact J-WEL at mit.edu for more information.