Gender Equality and Gratitude: How Women at MIT Persevered

Women deserve and expect fair, equal treatment even though we still have no ERA.

Posted Nov 26, 2017

Professor Hopkins, from A Slice of MIT
Source: Professor Hopkins, from A Slice of MIT

This has been a busy fall with regard to news of equality in the workplace. The National Women’s Law Center and Democracy Forward recently filed suit against the Trump Administration for rolling back pay transparency requirements. And MIT Technology Today, September/October, revisited the work of a trailblazer in academia who sought equality for women in the MIT School of Science. And from UC Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center, we are learning that gratitude training at major companies is resulting in a healthier environment.

The recent MIT Technology Today article is "Measuring Up." This title is appropriate in that Professor Nancy Hopkins literally took a measuring tape with her to determine size differences in laboratory space given to men and women. Hopkins is the Amgen Professor of Biology Emeritus at MIT. This article focused on her involvement with the original document regarding workplace equality. The full story, Putting Gender on the Table: The Story of the MIT Report, was written and distributed to the media by Professor Lotte Bailyn of the MIT Sloan School of Management.  

This is what we learned from the original report:

“...even highly successful women scientists, members of the National Academies and widely known for their research, were subject to subtle unintentional discrimination.”

The report pointed out that it was not blatant harassment, but rather “a pattern of unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even in light of obvious good will."

What did this pattern include?

The report noted exclusion from large multi-investigator research projects and from important committees; difficulty in getting laboratory space and other resources needed for research; the inability to control teaching assignments—all standard prerequisites of senior faculty members.

Essentially this meant lower salaries, smaller laboratory spaces, and extra work to attain needed resources. The report also noted that there were no women in leadership positions in the School of Science.

Women supporting women

If you can point to one factor that led to their success, it was women supporting women. At first, Hopkins went to Professor Mary-Lou Pardue with a confidential letter she had drafted regarding what she saw as discrimination. She asked Pardue’s opinion and Pardue, the Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology Emeritus, agreed. As the initial report was being drafted, 14 of the 15 tenured women in the School of Science participated.  As for tenured men—there were 202 in number.  

The ground-breaking Report on Women in Science in 1999 had the positive and generous support of the late MIT President Charles Vest as well as Professor Robert J. Birgeneau, physicist and former Dean of the School of Science. Here is a special report from the faculty newsletter: "A Study on the Status on the Status of Women in Science at MIT."

Substantive changes made at MIT School of Science became a model for academic change at universities throughout the United States. 

What about women in other professions?

Despite the progress made in academia, I was somewhat dismayed seeing the report and realizing that it was more than 20 years ago that I interviewed and wrote a book about the women betraying women, men pitting women against each other, and pay inequality. And we still have a pay gap. Although the Equal Rights Amendment was ratified by Congress in 1972, it is still not constitutional law. A group of conservative women fought against it.

When you consider that 25 years ago women were earning 64 cents for every dollar that a man earned and look at what is happening today, it hasn't changed much. Women must work two to three months longer to earn what their male counterparts earned by the end of the fiscal year.

There is some disparity regarding the actual numbers in dollars and cents. The Pew Research Group estimates that for both part time and full time work “women earn 84 percent of what men earn.” Whereas the American Association of University Women and the National Women's Law Center put the figure at 78 percent for full time workers in 2013.

Whether it is 78 percent or 84 percent it still means that women earn less than men. Women's Pay Gap: Is it Children, Expectations, or Feminism? Psychology Today. Women and men acknowledge there is a vital need for still more positive changes in the workplace. Perhaps the answer is the growing popularity of gratitude.

Why then gratitude?

Gratitude has more to do with attitude and positive feelings in the workplace than perhaps actually dollars and sense. The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley notes:

"The practice of gratitude—and its close sibling, appreciation—has started to infiltrate workplaces, from new software companies to older institutions like Campbell Soup, whose former CEO wrote 30,000 thank you notes to his employees. Though research on gratitude has exploded over the past two decades, studies of gratitude at work are still somewhat limited; results so far link it to more positive emotions, less stress and fewer health complaints, a greater sense that we can achieve our goals, fewer sick days, and higher satisfaction with our jobs and our co-workers." How Gratitude Can Transform Your Workplace."

Forbes magazine acknowledges that companies such as Southwest Airlines, which are responsive to employees, benefit from their own expressions of gratitude. If attitudes can change, then perhaps women can come up with proposals that will help more employers find a way to increase their pay, provide day care on the premises, and enhance working conditions so that everyone wins.

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson