In 1995 it was unimaginable that within 10 years the presidents of Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, and University of California at San Diego would all be women, and remarkably, women scientists. Ten years ago women's progress in academia seemed to have stalled, particularly in science. Large numbers of women majored in science and earned PhDs, yet only a tiny number had reached the top of the professoriate.
It's hardly surprising that the top seemed unattainable, considering widespread attitudes towards women scientists just a decade ago. I remember that MIT's dean of science kept the fact that a woman had had a baby secret from men about to vote on her tenure, because he feared (correctly) this could bias their judgment. In 1995, "baby" was still a "four-letter word."
Also pervasive was a suspicion that women might not be capable of Nobel-Prize-level science. Faculty had learned first-hand that women could be brilliant students, but other than a genius every few hundred years, could many women really do great science?
Many of these attitudes and beliefs sound antiquated today, and some that have held women back for decades, if not centuries, are destined for the graveyard of laughable historical anecdote. Clearly we are in the midst of a sea of change in the status of women in science. Within a decade (or two) we may at last achieve a gender-blind workplace.
What precipitated this remarkable change was that by the mid-1990s, suddenly enough women were near the very top to make a difference, and a few good men in power were willing to listen to them. This collaboration helped create a national network of women scientists who, with powerful backing from their institutions and their own scientific achievements, are driving widespread institutional change.
The percentage of women faculty at MIT is climbing, slowly. In 2004, 13% of faculty in the School of Science and 14% of the School of Engineering were female, up from 8% and 6%, respectively, in 1993.
Women who make it to the top in science have long known what holds many women in science back: family demands and bias. But until recently both topics were taboo. A critical step to making progress for women in science has been to put these problems on the agenda.
As for solving them, many academic institutions are devising innovative approaches to the family-career issues of young female and male faculty. For example, a consortium of nine universities convened by MIT's former President Vest and a group of 19 universities funded by the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE program are working to modify institutional processes and career patterns to enable young women and men to achieve at the highest levels of science while meeting family goals and obligations. Their findings and best practices should provide models that all universities can replicate.
The other remaining major barrier is residual bias and its many destructive manifestations. At its heart remains the unfounded, often unconscious, belief that women are inferior to men in their ability to do science, math, and engineering, among many other things.
This is not a provocative new question with scientific merit. It is bias or ignorance masquerading as scientific curiosity. Decades of effort have failed to produce any credible evidence for the notion that women are innately cognitively inferior to men in science, math, or any other intellectual endeavor.
Were the idea of women's inferiority not so deeply entrenched in our culture, this line of thinking would have been abandoned long ago. Meanwhile, compelling research in psychology has yielded extensive evidence for the damaging effects of such beliefs, which lower expectations among members of the affected group, can cause them to underperform, and lead to significant undervaluation of their work.
How will such attitudes finally be put to rest? The same way that sexual harassment has largely been eliminated from classrooms and workplaces: by the protracted process of education and understanding, combined with legal action and fewer women and men tolerating it.
America must harness all the talent it can in math, science, and engineering if it is to remain competitive in the global economy. Removing barriers to women's full participation can greatly increase the pool from which America's best 21st-century scientists will emerge. Women must continue to lead this reform, but many more men must come forward to help them.
Nancy Hopkins is the Amgen Professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cochair of the MIT Council on Faculty Diversity. Her lab studies genes required for early development and growth in zebrafish.
He can be contacted at