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Scribner Book Company: The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, Mit, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernicke

Scribner Book Company: The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, Mit, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernike

Scribner Book Company: The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, Mit, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernicke

Scribner Book Company: The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, Mit, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernicke

The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science

by Kate Zernike

In The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kate Zernike expands on her March 1999 article about MIT's long history of undervaluing its female faculty in this in-depth, revelatory, enraging and ultimately triumphant account of a group of women who brought to light the insidious ways in which bias undermined their careers in science.

Zernike's front-page story in the Boston Sunday Globe revealed that MIT had admitted to long-term discrimination against women on its science faculty. This led to "a climate change in the whole of academia," as an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology called it. Surprisingly, in litigious America, that admission was not the result of a lawsuit, but because 16 women, "who had started as strangers, working in secret, and gathered their case so methodically--like the scientists they were--that MIT could not ignore them. They upset the usual assumptions about why there were so few women in science and math and unleashed a reckoning across the United States."

Leading the charge was Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist who was trying to identify the genes essential for development. Her defining moment came when she needed more room for her zebrafish tanks. Her request was denied, but she discovered other researchers had more space than she did--male researchers. So Nancy painstakingly measured every square inch of the laboratories in her building, bringing hard data to the dean that on average the male faculty had much more lab space than their female counterparts.

Zernike takes readers with Hopkins on her journey to this moment, with all its frustrations, at a time when "unconscious bias" was not yet in common parlance.

Hopkins granted Zernike access to the papers she'd kept during this time, and the result is an intimate look at her life and career. Hopkins was a junior at Radcliffe in the 1960s when she took a class from James D. Watson, already famous for helping to discover the DNA double helix. She was entranced by his ideas, and soon asked if she could work in his lab. "The lab had opened up a world she had not known existed, much less thought she might inhabit." She found both purpose and camaraderie in doing actual science, and initially decided against a Ph.D. "She didn't think about this as a case of limited options. She saw it as reality," since academic women's experiences were mostly short-term research gigs or lab work while serving as their husbands' adjuncts. Employers considered them uncommitted to their jobs; others considered them uncommitted to their children.

Hopkins later decided to get a Ph.D. at Harvard, worked as a postdoc fellow for Watson, and joined the MIT faculty in the Center for Cancer Research as an assistant professor in 1973. Along the way, she endured subtle forms of discrimination: offered an undergraduate genetics course, her department chairman nixed the idea, saying that the students wouldn't trust scientific information from a woman; she was left out of important meetings; she wasn't told about grants. Yet she dismissed others' stories of discrimination--they were "difficult" women, she wasn't. "The old rules and assumptions did not apply anymore, or, at least, they would not apply to Nancy. Of that she felt confident."

But doubts began creeping into her thinking, particularly after she read Rosalind Franklin & DNA. Franklin's X-ray of a double helix had helped Watson and Crick prove their DNA theory, but she was denied her due. "Reading the book now, [Nancy] thought, This is my life." Then came the fateful epiphany with the measuring tape: "She felt like a fool, duped.... It had taken her twenty years to see it... [and] now that she did, it was as obvious as the clearest scientific result." So she talked to other women at MIT; she gathered evidence. Zernike recounts a pivotal lunch between Hopkins and geneticist and cell biologist Mary-Lou Pardue that turned the tide.

The author smoothly paints a picture of the attitudes of the day, re-creating a context in which Hopkins feared she would appear "too radical" to her female colleagues. But the patterns were irrefutable. She, along with 15 other women, wrote a proposal for a women's committee that would examine how resources and teaching assignments were distributed. After the letter was delivered, six of them met with the dean. As they moved across campus, one can envision gunslingers walking down a dusty street, then steps echoing in a marble hallway. When the dean walked into the meeting, he hadn't even read their letter. But they had started something that, in retrospect, seems inevitable, culminating with MIT's admission and a radical change in research universities' treatment of women scientists, faculty and students.

In Zernike's hands, this is a thrilling story: we know the outcome, but the ride is both frustrating--how could Hopkins put up with this for so long?--and then exhilarating when she becomes radical in her fight for equality.

The women at MIT nailed the issue of marginalization, of unconscious bias in the sciences. And while Hopkins's story plays out, Zernike drops in fascinating, relevant history: DNA research, genetics, mini-bios of chemist Rosalind Franklin and geneticist Barbara McClintock, affirmative action and the civil rights era. She has a deft touch with detail: Hopkins's sister Ann divided Harvard men by white socks or dark; Hopkins describes a first classroom encounter: "Watson appeared suddenly, as if by a tailwind in a cartoon."

Zernike writes, "Nancy's tape measure had given women a new way to quantify a feeling they hadn't quite known how to explain, a measure of all the indignities that added up over time. "

Her now-famous tape measure is in the MIT Museum. --Marilyn Dahl

Scribner, $30, hardcover, 432p., 9781982131838, February 28, 2023

Scribner Book Company: The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, Mit, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernicke

Kate Zernike: The Subtlety of Sexual Discrimination

(photo: Harry Zernike)

Kate Zernike has been a reporter for the New York Times since 2000. She was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for stories about al-Qaeda before and after the 9/11 terror attacks. She was previously a reporter for the Boston Globe, where she broke the story of MIT's admission that it had discriminated against women on its faculty, on which The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science (Scribner, February 28, 2023) is based. The daughter and granddaughter of scientists, she is a graduate of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons.

What led you to expand on your newspaper piece?

Some stories stick with you longer than others, and the story about these women--who are brilliant and accomplished and showed such ingenuity in getting MIT to do what it did--never left me. The idea to do a book started in January 2018, when Nancy had retired from MIT and was wondering what to do with the volumes of papers she'd kept from this time. The #MeToo movement was surging, and all the discussions about sexual harassment made me think about the more subtle discrimination the MIT women had identified. It took some time to convince Nancy to let me see the papers, but once I saw them, I realized that they could help tell this intimate story of what it's like to be a professional woman and to experience bias--especially at a time when we like to think we've cured it.

"Their experience became a metric for how I thought about my own life and the questions and debates around women that I would write about over the next two decades." How did this inform your thinking about your own life?

I'm trying to avoid a long answer here because there is so much to say! One of the reasons this story rocketed around universities and the world the way it did was that the women identified unconscious bias, which in 1999 was still a new idea. And I remember being struck that this marginalization, as the women described it, happened not in the early part of their careers but as they got older. It wasn't enough to open up these fields to women, you had to make sure they had the same opportunities and resources as their careers developed, that they got credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I was early in my own career at the time, so this made me think about all the subtle ways we still treat women differently, and talk and write about them differently. I knew what to watch out for, and I wondered how it would play out for me. I wasn't paranoid, it was more that I was curious. And aware.

Reading about Nancy's dilemma at having to choose between science or family, with her biological clock ticking, seems both old fashioned and very now. Women who dared complain about, say, tenure or pay or attribution, were told that they had to work harder and better than men. This doesn't seem like it has changed much, particularly for BIPOC professionals.

It is both very old fashioned and very now. That was one of the most fascinating and frustrating things about researching this book. The "choice" between career and a family doesn't really feel like a choice because no matter what you choose, you feel you are letting someone down, maybe worst of all yourself. Or you try to do it all, only to realize no one can. And decades of research have confirmed what many long suspected, that people who don't look like those who've occupied these jobs for most of history--in most professions, white men--still have to work harder to prove they belong. Women are judged more critically, whether it's men or women doing the judging. The challenge is especially steep for women in math and science, partly because we assume that those fields require genius--this raw brilliance--and "genius" is a word we more often associate with men.

As I read The Exceptions, and Nancy's struggles for acceptance, for credit, I got angrier and angrier, and wanted to rush ahead to the "happy" ending. I also got impatient with Nancy's recalcitrance in naming her problem. She was so reluctant to think her sex had anything to do with it.

You are not the only person to feel angry! Or impatient. But for Nancy, to speak up was to make herself look difficult. She'd seen what happened to women who were branded "difficult." And she, like the other women, really wanted to believe in the meritocracy. Most of us do. And Nancy thought it was reasonable because the women's movement was in full swing and affirmative action had opened so many doors for women. She didn't want to believe anyone was biased against her or that she needed special treatment, she believed in herself. She started to see that other women were being discriminated against before she could see that she herself was being discriminated against. She thought she was the exception--just one of the ways that word kept coming up. And I might have hurried more to the happy ending, but I thought it was important to show her reluctance to admit that she was being discriminated against. And how much time she lost to trying to make things work despite the discrimination.

After her lunch with Mary-Lou Pardue, I began to get excited. Finally! After 20 years! So it was amusing to read that Nancy, in the meeting with the first 12 women, worried that she'd be seen as too radical.

Yes, after 20 years, there was the payoff! But almost all of those women were worried about being seen as too radical. They wanted to be recognized as the accomplished scientists they were, not seen as troublemakers. They worried that a group of female professors seen huddling on campus would arouse suspicion. And the men did think Nancy was too radical, a troublemaker. That was one of the important things about the group of 16 women. It was easier to be radical in numbers.

Lotte Bailyn, the first woman faculty member at MIT Sloan, said, "The consequences of these more subtle forms of discrimination are equally real and equally demoralizing." It seems like we often equate sex discrimination with sexual coercion.

Lotte's writing about work and women, starting in the 1960s, is so profound for me. She recognized early on so many of the challenges that we're still trying to work through. And she was revolutionary in 1999 with this line about the subtlety of sexual discrimination. This was one of the things that held up Nancy's understanding of her own situation, she thought that sex discrimination had to involve sex or sexual coercion. And sexual coercion is more dramatic, and more obvious. The more subtle discrimination Lotte describes here, and that the women identified at MIT, is more pervasive and more insidious. --Marilyn Dahl

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