ITHACA N.Y—In the late 1950s Mildred Dresselhaus was a post-doctoral associate at Cornell and her husband, Gene, was a junior faculty member there. But Cornell's rules barring nepotism prevented the couple from building physics careers there, and they packed their bags for MIT, which had an outstanding reputation for recruiting women faculty.

Thirty years later, Mildred Dresselhaus is an institute professor of physics and electrical engineering and her husband is a senior scientist at the school’s National Magnet Laboratory. “If there were any nepotism rules at MIT, I wasn’t aware of them,” said Mildred Dresselhaus, who is also a past: president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In the past few decades women have made remarkable strides in science, and there have been noteworthy reversals in attitude. Nepotism is no longer an issue at Cornell, which a few years ago hired Barbara Baird as an associate professor...

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