Women and Minorities in the Sciences

Women and Minorities in the Sciences

Women and minorities are rare in the sciences. Why? And what can be done about it? On the Issues Interviews Paul E. Gray, President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Shirley M. McBay, Dean for Student Affairs, MIT

On The Issues (OTI): What percent of the undergraduate population do women make up at MIT? Has this increased during the time you’ve been president?
Paul E. Gray (PEG): More than a third of our undergraduates are women, with the senior class at nearly 35 percent. That is a new high watermark for MIT. Ten years ago, when my term as president began, the range was 16-18 percent. Twenty years ago it was less than 10 percent and 40 years ago when I was a student here, women were practically invisible. In my freshman class of about 800 individuals, there were 13 women. In those years the number of women was set essentially by quota and the quota was whatever we could house. There was one dormitory for women, a row house on Bay State Road in Boston. Then in the early 1960s, an alumnus, Katherine Dexter McCormick, gave us money for McCormick Hall, the first women’s dormitory. That raised the number of women in the entering class. The big
increase came in the late ’60s, when the second McCormick Hall was built, and a number of dormitories which had housed only men were opened to women.

OTI: You said that women were practically invisible when you were an undergraduate. What was the attitude of your classmates toward women?
PEG: There were so few women at MIT that most MIT undergraduates never addressed the question.

OTI: As president of MIT, you have made quite an effort to recruit women. What influenced you in that decision?
PEG: Our society does not educate enough young people of college age and college ability for careers in science and engineering compared with other industrialized societies, for example West Germany or Japan. One way of attacking that problem is to make it clear that these are careers which are possible, attractive and desirable for women as well as men. The traditional – meaning pre-1970s – exclusion of women from these careers, particularly engineering, does not serve the nation very well. The Chinese say that women hold up half the sky. That ought to be true in these fields of endeavor as well as in other areas. You can say, well, MIT is only one place, and you haven’t increased the total size of the student body very much over 10 years, so you haven’t made enough of a difference in the total number of women and men now studying science or engineering. Given that we are something of a model for science and engineering education, and that MIT traditionally has played a disproportionate role in preparing people who go on to faculty careers in these fields, a change of this kind in our student body has had great leverage.

OTI:What about women on the faculty at MIT?
PEG: Twenty-five years ago, out of a faculty of 800 there were about half a dozen women. Now with a faculty of about 950, there are about 95 to 100 women. Much of that change occurred prior to my presidency, and we have
not made enough progress in the last 10 years. On the 21-member Academic Council, which is the governing academic body at MIT, there are now five women.

OTI: What factors hold women back in science and engineering?
PEG: I think it begins with a set of widely-shared public attitudes about what is acceptable or appropriate for women and men to do. For a long time, the attitude has been that women don’t do science, or more narrowly, women don’t do mathematics. I think that prejudice begins very early, probably at junior high school or earlier. A girl who seems to do well and be interested in math encounters a fair amount of discouragement from the culture. Fifteen years ago I had a freshman advisee, a young woman who had come to MIT from Dorchester High School, and she had decided in her junior year that she wanted to come here. Her guidance counselor told her, “You can’t go there, it’s men only.” My advisee knew that that was not the case, and when she showed the counselor a catalog that proved there were women at MIT, her counselor said, “Well, no self respecting girl would want to go there, it just isn’t done.” She came, she persevered, she got a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and she’s now employed as an engineer.

OTI: Do people see it as “unfeminine,” or do they think women can’t do math and science?
PEG: I don’t know what the social roots are, but I think the expressed sense is not that women can’t do it, but that they shouldn’t – it’s not feminine.

OTI: Do you think women have particular difficulties in math and science?
PEG: Sheila Tobias, an educator, did a lot of research on math anxiety in women in both high school and college. I don’t believe there are any gender differences. There’s nothing intrinsic in the physiology of women that makes mathematics less accessible or more difficult, but the social expectations which begin at a very early age probably do make a difference.

OTI: What happens when women graduate from places like MIT? Do they have the same troubles that women experience in other fields or do they have more trouble advancing?
PEG: It’s probably a little early to assess any hard evidence because the majority of female graduates of MIT who are out there now making their careers are less than 40 years old, most of them are less than 35. And we haven’t done any systematic surveys that would indicate how their careers are progressing. Anecdotally, I look around at women I’ve known here as students and have stayed in touch with, and my sense is that they are moving along in careers, encountering the same kinds of difficulties as their male counterparts, with the exception of the dilemma that arises with the conflict between career and parenting. That represents a difficult problem for women in any field, but it is more severe in science and engineering, simply because these fields change so rapidly. If you’re disconnected for five years, you’ve got a significant amount of catch-up to do.

OTI: Are many women who are graduating in science and engineering going into teaching?
PEG: Fewer women than you would expect are continuing on through graduation to a doctoral degree and making a start on faculty careers. The same is true for minorities. If you look at the graduate student population at MIT, the numbers are smaller.

OTI: What are they?
PEG: For a woman it’s around 20 percent, for minorities it’s a little more than two percent. In part, that’s because at the undergraduate level we have made a policy decision about recruiting women and minorities, and we can implement it because it’s a single coherent process overseen by one office. At the graduate level, it’s 24 separate processes with every department doing its own admissions, so it’s harder to influence.

OTI: Do you do anything special to recruit women at the undergraduate level?
PEG: We do basically the same kind of thing with women that we do to recruit young men. We buy from the Educational Testing Service lists of names of individuals who have expressed an interest in our kind of educational program and who have college board scores in a range which would make them sensible applicants. These are generally high school juniors. Then we send them information about MIT which generates preliminary applications.

OTI: Are the figures of women who graduate from MIT the same as for men? For a long time, the attitude has been that women don’t do science…
PEG: Yes. About 10 years ago we took a very close look at the numerical determinants that compared women’s experience at MIT with men’s experience, because there was some concern at that time that women were not being represented to the same degree in some activities, such as the professional honorary societies. The results showed that on all the dimensions you could think of – grades, graduation rates, participation in honorary societies, extra-curricular activities – there were no significant differences in participation and success rates for men and women. The only significant difference that emerged was that women were proportionately more involved than men in intercollegiate athletics. Our admissions office indicates that SATs slightly under predict the actual performance of women and slightly over predict that of men. Perhaps more importantly, MIT studies show that even though MIT women have slightly lower math scores, they perform as well as men in final exams and have a higher graduation rate – around 90 percent.

OTI: What should we do to recruit more women in science and engineering to schools like MIT?
PEG: Coming to a place like this requires three years of science and four years of mathematics in high school. If you look at the junior high school and high school pipeline, I think you will find that young women begin to drop out of the stream earlier on and at a greater rate than young men do. That means there is some built-in difference among 11th and 12th graders in terms of who can even apply – not only here, but to any program that’s science or engineering based.

OTI: So we have to make the effort to get women involved in science and math earlier.
PEG: Yes.

OTI: Do you think we’re going to see a lot more women in science in the future?
PEG: I think the trends that we’ve seen now for 20 or 30 years are likely to continue. The numbers at a place like MIT are not likely to grow until we can address the questions of what happens in high school.

OTI: Is this different in industrialized societies in which scientists in general are revered – in Japan, Korea, or Germany?
PEG: Women are certainly less represented in the professions in Germany or Japan than they are here, including engineering and science. In Japan there’s a very fixed set of culturally based ideas about what is appropriate for women to do and not do. It borders on the impossible for a woman to make a career in science or engineering there. In my travels to Japan, I’ve encountered only one woman executive, an engineering manager in an electronics company called Oki Electric in Tokyo. She’s the first one in 15 years of visits. For all the flaws in American society, which tends to make gender-based distinctions, they are enormously more powerful in Asian societies, and my impression is in some European societies as well.

OTI: Do you think women feel good about their experience at MIT?
PEG: That’s hard to answer because I think that most MIT students don’t feel very good about their experience while they’re at it or soon after they finish. Many MIT students will say that the place was a grind, and they’re not sure they would want to do it again. Interestingly, if you talk to them when they’re back home – even while they’re students – their attitude seems a little more tolerant and a little softer. I don’t know whether women feel differently about it, but I’d be surprised if they were more positive about their experience than men are.

OTI: How do men feel about the women students here?
PEG: I think that most of the men recognize that participation of women in this setting and in the kinds of careers that they’re going to move into is the way things are, and they accept that. And I think many foreign students – not all, but many – bring their cultural attitudes about the place of women to MIT and that leads them to behave in ways which their women associates, foreign or otherwise, regard as extremely sexist. That gets particularly troublesome when the foreign student male is a teaching assistant and has women in the class. I hear enough about that to believe that’s a real issue.

OTI: What can you do about that?
PEG: We try to sensitize people, raise consciousness. Occasionally situations will come to a point where we can deal with it directly, that is, somebody will say, “look, I think this is intolerable and I want action.” Then we try to deal with it. There’s a lot of concern at the moment about sexual harassment and one of my dilemmas in trying to understand and deal with those issues is that very often the people who feel harassed are not willing to carry it through to the point of acting on it. I understand that it’s difficult, it’s painful, and requires an involvement in the process which is confrontational and contentious. But unless it gets to that point, there’s often not a lot we can do about it.

OTI: A Harvard Law School professor says there wasn’t much sexism there until they had admitted a lot of women. When there was one woman there was no problem, when there were three women, there was no problem, when it got to 30 percent they had a real problem. What do you think you can do to raise consciousness about things like that?
PEG: I want to pick up that comment about Harvard. Was there a problem at MIT when two percent of the students were women? I think there was a serious problem. In those years, when there was a quota imposed by housing, women as a group were considerably better qualified than men, simply because the threshold – the cut level – was higher. Nevertheless, women did not thrive here in those years. Their graduation rate was lower, their grades on the whole were lower, they did not have as successful an experience at MIT as their male counterparts. I believe that was because there was no community, there was no sense of support, there was no sense that what they were doing was a sensible, appropriate thing and it was all right for them to do well. If the case was that when we had two percent women, they did not achieve at the level you would have expected, and when we got up to 10,20,30 percent women, these differences disappeared, that suggests a manifestation of a kind of sexism in the community. It may not be the overt kind of a man putting a woman down because he feels threatened by her, but that when you have just a small representation, I think people sense their precariousness and don’t do well. All we can do, through the academic leadership of the place, through the deans and the department heads and lab directors, is to keep making the point that this organization needs to behave in a way which is even-handed and fair with respect to all here – minorities, women, men. You have to keep putting before them enough examples of the kind of behavior that’s unacceptable so that people realize that some of these things are quite subtle and may be unintentional, and have to be changed.

Interview with MIT Dean of Student Affairs Shirley M. McBay

OTI: Are the problems in science today the same for women and minorities?
Shirley M. McBay (SMM): There are some similarities, but there are distinct differences. The Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, which I chaired at the National Science Foundation, recently submitted a report to Congress that lists the factors that are most important in the selection of science and engineering majors. When you look at the preparation of women and minority students, in terms of which science and math courses they’ve taken, you can see the similarities.

OTI: You mean women and minorities don’t take advanced courses?
SMM: Right. They don’t take the most advanced courses, because they often are not encouraged to take them. There is a difference along socioeconomic and status lines. In courses ranging all the way up from Algebra I to calculus, there is no distinct difference in terms of men and women, but there is a difference in race and ethnicity. For example, 15 percent of all Asian-American students have taken calculus in comparison with six percent of all male students and five percent of all female students.

OTI: In what population?
SMM: In high school graduates who had taken college preparatory mathematics courses.

OTI: Did they distinguish between male and female Asian-American students?
SMM: No, unfortunately not, but if you look at the science courses taken by high school graduates, you see a difference between women and men. For example, 15 percent of all male students had taken Physics I, but only eight percent of female students had studied it. However, if you look by race and ethnicity, 27 percent of Asian American students had taken Physics compared to 11 percent of all students.

OTI: What are the factors that make Asian-American students more likely to take the harder courses?
SMM: I think it has to do with the kind of emphasis placed at home.

OTI: You mean the culture encourages them.
SMM: Right. It does not encourage women, white or Black, or Black men. There is also a distinction along socioeconomic lines; the students in remedial courses tend to be from a lower socioeconomic status. Those in advanced courses are in higher socioeconomic groups. Students who come from lower income families are generally in schools that have the least resources. Their teachers have less experience and the facilities in which they are studying tend to be in very poor condition. They don’t have laboratories, for example. They have the bare minimum. They don’t have enriching after school experiences – trips to museums and things that more affluent children are used to. Poor minorities are groups that have been considered historically underserved: American Indians, Black-Americans, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans.

OTI: Are there different factors that are discouraging to Blacks, other underrepresented minorities and women in terms of going into science?
SMM: That implies that women and minorities are not overlapping. I want to emphasize that minority women, especially minority women who are trying to study science and mathematics, not only have the barriers of being female in a tough discipline, but they are also minorities. Girls are not encouraged to be as inquisitive and exploratory as boys.

OTI: What other barriers are there for minority students?
SMM: In some minority communities, if the student wants to succeed academically, often that student’s peers discourage her or him and will try to make the student feel as if she or he is trying to be different and is accepting standards and perspectives of nonminorities. That is often phrased, “acting white.” And if you are from a lower-income family, generally there are not as many folks around to encourage reading and studying every night. You have situations where the parents themselves had negative experiences at school. It may be difficult to sit down and do subject xyz if your parents cannot help because they’ve had negative experiences. Some parents feel that somehow you have to be born with an innate ability to do math and science. There is a lot of that in representation and we found very successful projects in all of those places. One of the messages of this report is that all is not hopeless. Something you might conclude if you look at all the data: Performance on standardized tests, representation of minorities in science and engineering, and the recent drop, particularly among Blacks, going on to and graduating from colleges. One thing these projects had in common was that they were all underfunded. On the up side, you had very dedicated people in charge of the projects, people who were really willing to put in the hours necessary to do this with little money available. American culture and it has nothing to do with race. There’s a general perception that you’re either born with it or you’re not, and that hard work has nothing to do with it – which is absolutely absurd. So you have minority children who tend to come disproportionately from lower-income families, not always having the kind of support from the environment that encourages the kinds of values and disciplines that you need to be successful. The other factor that minority children face – and it isn’t just children – is the sense of lower expectations. With all these factors, it is almost a miracle that anybody survives and excels, especially hungry children from lower income families. It requires an awful lot of commitment and encouragement for them to be successful.

OTI: Why should we be particularly concerned about this now?
SMM: First of all, it is the right thing to do. I think it is immoral to ignore the needs of people who have helped to build this country. We are at a point in history where significant demographic changes are occurring in gender, race andethnicity.Bytheyear2015,third of the population is going to be minority. Between now and 2000,90 percent of the incoming workforce will be women and minorities. There is no way that we can have the kind of work force we need if we ignore a third of the population.

OTI: We know that you have been a major player in a new report called “Education That Works: An Action Plan for the Education of Minorities.” Why did you and the Carnegie Foundation decide to do this study?
SMM: There have been a lot of reports about the quality and status of educa- tion and the need for restructuring. The Carnegie Corporation felt that Americanminoritiesoughttohavethe opportunity to voice their views. So they gave us support to go around and talk to people about the status of edu- cation for minorities and what factors they thought ought to be taken into consideration before any major policy changes were made.

OTI: Where did you go and what were you looking for?
SMM: There were nine regional meetings. We went to large minority populations centers: Albuquerque, Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, San Juan – all migratory hubs for minoritees. We wanted the widest possible representation and we found very successful projects in all of those places. One of the messages of this report is that all is not hopeless. Something you might conclude if you look at all the data: Performance on standardized tests, representation of minorities in science and engineering, and the recent drop, particularly among Blacks, going on to and graduating from colleges. One thing these projects had in common was that they were all underfunded. On the up side, you had very dedicated people in charge of the projects, people who were really willing to put in the hours necessary to do this with little money available.

OTI: So successful, quality education demands people who are committed to making that happen.
SMM: It demands people who want to make a difference in the lives of children and have high expectations of the children. They have to believe that these children, given opportunities, can perform.

OTI: You’re saying, if somebody expects you to do well, you are more likely to do well; if they act as if you are stupid, you are more likely to underperform.
SMM: You have to be very strong to overcome a lot of negative signals from your environment. Some people assume that MIT uses different standards for admitting minority students and women. That’s not true.

OTI: What are the standards?
SMM: First of all, MIT would not admit any student whom we didn’t feel had the ability to do the work and to be successful here. It would be cruel to do that. But it’s not only on the basis of scores. Personal ratings and academic ratings are determined for each applicant; then decisions about the first year class are made after looking at all of the reviews.

OTI: What are the minimum standards MIT students have to meet?
SMM: A student with less than a 650 score on the math SAT would have a hard time here. That’s my personal view, but tomorrow I might see a profile of a student with a 550.

OTI: What implications does this have for affirmative action programs?
SMM: If we were to prepare students fully the first time around, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion. There are many people who believe that our public school system has been intentionally structured so that minorities do not do well. It certainly has not been encouraging of minority students. The end product speaks for itself. Given that we need to make this major restructuring in the pre-college level, and that is going to take time, then, during the transition, you obviously have to have some programs that attempt to remedy poor preparation. So, one of the things that colleges and universities need to do is expand their definition of affirmative action. A definition I’d like to use includes forming partnerships with local or regional school systems and helping them to do a better job, both with curriculum and giving students experiences that would better prepare them for success. Institutional accreditation ought to be built on how responsive and able an institution is to get minority students to achieve. Obviously that’s not something where students just sit passively by. They have to contribute to this as well. But, you have to have the kind of environment that supports achievement by minority students and builds confidence. We try to do that here at MIT through Project XL, an experimental program for about 45 first-year students. This is our first term and so far the core has been study groups in physics and calculus which are facilitated by an advanced undergraduate or graduate student. The study groups give students an opportunity to review and understand the concepts that have been discussed in physics and calculus classes. They go to the board and work on problems based on those concepts. They have to explain in detail to their peers in the study group the principles that are being conveyed in the problem. They learn how to ask questions, to be confident about those questions and to understand that everybody doesn’t always know the answer. That is a real misperception among minority students.

OTI: Could you describe other programs your committee studied that are exemplary?
SMM: The Baltimore public schools have an approach that may have the greatest potential of attacking racism. Students form interracial learning teams in the early grades. This is a small group, similar to XL except it is interracial by design. The idea is that this learning team has a common goal. There is some project that the group has to complete together. Every member has an assignment. No one can complete the assignment until everyone has contributed. That says to each child, “you have something to contribute.” It also tells the student who might normally be able to work faster that others have something to contribute as well. It is exactly what happens in athletics. And there’s nothing more American than athletics. It’s having a common goal.

OTI: In other words, you could be a terrific quarterback, but just try…
SMM: Try being those 13 players by yourself. In the Baltimore program, when the students on one team finish a project, the group may break up and form a new interracial learning team around some other project. They don’t want to have a situation in which the one or two minorities or the one or two girls in the group are viewed as the exception. That way they get to see students from different races and different genders perform and contribute. I think in the long run that has more potential, not only in terms of addressing the problems usually accompanying racism, but also in terms of developing confidence.

OTI: It also points to the failures of the tracking system, which was put in when the schools were first integrated to separate out kids of lesser ability.
SMM: One of the major recommendations we make is to eliminate tracking and replace it with cooperative learning. Tracking sometimes occurs as early as pre-kindergarten. If students have not had Headstart when they come to school, or some opportunity for intellectual stimulation before they get there, they aren’t able to bring very much from home. People then interpret that fact, that they have little to bring, with being mentally retarded or not smart. Instead of finding a way to determine what the student’s potential is, what is measured is how much is known already. So, lower-income students often get put into slower tracks. Many teachers actually prefer having students in these homogeneous groupings because it’s easier, but it isn’t to the advantage of the students. You can’t get off those tracks; therefore, sometimes the damage is done for a lifetime. There are studies that show that when you have mixed ability groupings, students who are more advanced actually – through teaching and sharing with other people – end up understanding the material and gaining a lot too. It also reflects reality. When you go into the workforce, you have to work with other people. The sooner people learn how to do that, the better.

OTI: One of the messages of the report is that cooperation is a positive experience.
SMM: And by starting it early, it helps to address a lot of the other problems. Quality education for minorities will lead to quality education for everyone. If we prepare minority students who are in the worst circumstances, we free up the need for remedial programs. What we are doing now is trying to fix up the defective product. If you take all that money that’s now spent on remedial programs and put it back into enriching the curriculum, everyone benefits.