Who's Getting the Preferential Treatment?

This is the first of three discussion posts for Week 2 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the archives and clicking on Joy of Science under in the Category section.

This post deals with the readings by Rayman & Stewart, Bix, and Benckert & Staberg.

What do women need to succeed in science? Does what they need differ from what men need? If so, why? What constitutes a good environment for women in science? What constitutes success? Will having more women in science affect the way that science is done?

Two of this week's readings - "Reaching for Success" by Rayman & Stewart and "Feminism Where Men Predominate" by Bix - give us a historical view in answering some of these questions. We have indeed come a long way from the days when women had to do battle just to be let onto the campuses and into the science and engineering classrooms. Just think of Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, obtaining an S.B. degree in 1873.

It was voted to confirm the recommendation of the Committee on the School of Industrial Science that Miss Ellen H. Swallow be admitted as a Special Student in Chemistry - it being understood that her admission did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females.

Of course, she already had a bachelor's degree from Vassar, and what she wanted was to do graduate study at MIT. But they wouldn't let her. So they grudgingly let her do another bachelor's degree. She went on to establish the Women's Laboratory, and alumnae of that laboratory raised money for a women's lounge and bathrooms so that MIT couldn't use lack of facilities as an excuse to bar women. Bix tells us that for the next eighty years, that lounge remained an important, and controversial, space for women. Having to eat with hordes of men in the cafeteria made women uncomfortable - but hadn't they chosen to attend an institution " 'where men students predominate' "? Why should they receive special treatment? On the other hand - didn't they have special needs that the men did not?

Though women are no longer barred from the universities, and the days of quotas limiting their enrollment are past, we still find ourselves dealing with the question of "special" or "preferential" treatment. Directors of women in engineering programs are often asked, sometimes belligerently, "what about the men in engineering program?" At a university I am familiar with, a move was made in recent years to eliminate the multicultural engineering student lounge. The MEP director fought to retain the space and argued that MEP students needed a place where they could gather on their own, a safe space within the larger engineering community. Space is always a limited commodity on campuses, and its allocation is never free of political implications. The argument was made that MEP students should not be "self-segregating" in the MEP student lounge.

Such arguments ignore, as Benckert and Staberg point out, that white and male are normative in our daily discourse. No one accuses a group of all white students of being "self-segregating". That's just normal! The fact that our institutions are structured by and for white males is something that is so pervasive and so all-encompassing that it is rendered invisible - at least, if you are white and male. It is harder to ignore the consequences of the institutional culture if you are female, if you are non-white. Something like an MEP student lounge is not a special perk for one group of students that gives them an advantage over all other students - it is a coping mechanism to help a disadvantaged group of students deal with an environment that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to their presence. It would be great if things like MEP student lounges were not necessary. But that would require something much more radical than an MEP student lounge - it would require a transformation of institutional culture and practice.

What women need to succeed in science does not differ from what men need, in one sense. That is, women need sufficient lab space, access to equipment and supplies, funding, and so on. But for all intents and purposes, women and men live in two different worlds. In the man's world, you are not expected to be a primary caregiver for children or elderly parents. You are not expected to compromise or sacrifice your career goals to maintain a relationship. People don't look at you and think, "best to not waste a fellowship/job opportunity/mentoring on him; he'll probably just get married and/or have children and not be dedicated to his career." In the man's world, when you publish a paper, no one suspects that your advisor/collaborator really did all the work. In the man's world, people will say things like, "He's already got three papers published!" not "He's only published three papers so far." It goes without saying - but of course, it should be said - that all of these perks are even better if you get to live in the white man's world, where no one ever expects you to represent your entire race. Where, if you do poorly on an exam, no one ever says "don't worry - that's a very good score for someone like you." Where no one ever assumes you must be a member of the janitorial staff.

Because women and men, whites and non-whites, aren't living in the same world, it isn't enough to say "we're all equal, treat us all the same". Of course we're all equal in the most basic sense: we are all capable of contributing to science and engineering. But we can't pretend that preferential advantage for whites and males does not exist, and therefore we have to take action to account for that if we want to have equality in reality. It's a subtle, but important shift in the conversation to talk about male advantage rather than female disadvantage. We don't need women in engineering programs because women need extra help in order to be good engineers. We need women in engineering programs because engineering needs extra help in order to compensate for its unwelcoming environment and its preferential treatment of men.

Looking at the history of women's participation in science and engineering, we see that it is not characterized by steady progress. Rayman & Stewart's information about early 20th century doctorates for women is one example. Another perfect example of this is shown in a report by Nancy Hopkins entitled Diversification of a University Faculty: Observations on Hiring Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT. Consider this figure from the report: (for a larger view of the figure see here.)


The figure shows

the total number of tenured and untenured women faculty in all six departments in the School of Science from 1963 (when there was a single woman faculty member) through 2005 (when there were 36 women faculty). The curve rises steeply twice: once between 1972-1976 and once between 1997-2000. These rises do not reflect contemporaneous increases in the size of the faculty during those periods. The number of male faculty at several relevant years is shown in the numbers at the top of the graph. The number of male faculty actually decreased (from 259 to 229) during the rise in female faculty between1997-2000, due to an early retirement program. As of 2006, there were 36 female faculty and 240 male faculty in the School of Science at MIT.

The first sharp rise in women faculty around 1972 to 1975, Hopkins says, was the result of pressures from the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action regulations. The second sharp rise from 1996 to 2000 was the result of the dean's response to the 1996 Report On Women Faculty. Absent specific pressures, it otherwise seems to have been pancake-flat all the way. It seems that if we do not organize and agitate, if we do not demand "preferential treatment" of our own, things will never change. But when there is an action like that in response to the MIT report, or the Tham Professorships in Sweden, as discussed in the Benckert and Staberg reading, then the accusation is made that competence will be sacrificed in favor of gender. But Hopkins offers data in her report showing that women professors at MIT are at least as accomplished as and possibly more so than their male colleagues. Indeed, she argues that given how women are consistently undervalued, they may be even more competent that the official record shows.

If we are well-behaved and quiet, men will allow a few of us "good" women to reside on the pancake plateau for years and years. If we raise hell and demand equity now, we are surely going to be accused of lowering standards and ruining Western science as we know it - but we just might see some change in our lifetime.

More like this

See also Sofia Kovalevskaya -- the prototype of female mathematicians and scientists overcoming immense obstacles to get a PhD in a European university. They insisted that by definition, a woman could not have a PhD, and she had to write 3 dissertations to have the effect of one! And she published feminist fiction and drama, once she got through the gates of Academe. So men spread the canard that her work was actually taken from her male tutors presumed to be lovers. I consider this very important in the history of women in science.

On the other side of the mythical "Two Cultures Gap" the story of Women publishing fiction and poetry under male pseudonyms is too well known to recapitulate here. The story repeated with women Science Fiction writers using pseudonyms (i.e. James Tiptree, Jr.) and initials rather than first names.

There's still a long long way to go. But people should also know how much more insane it used to be...

Social processes of this sort tend to be homeostatic -- left to themselves, they will maintain the status quo indefinitely. The key is that any desired change needs to be actively maintained until it in turn becomes the new status quo, including having its own partisans defending their investments in it.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 03 Mar 2007 #permalink

Waaaah. This is all so depressing. (I'm having a week of depression rather than the usual anger.) But thanks, Zuska; yet more documents for all requisite beating-about-head-and-shoulders.

Jenny F. Scientist, I know what you mean. The readings for this week have been somewhat depressing to me as well and on top of my not feeling well it's been very hard to make my way through them and write what I want to. That's why part 3 still isn't up yet. Not feeling well, dealing with the really downer stuff...it's not pretty. But hey, I'm the one who assigned myself this mess....