I read the latest MIT Report on the Status of Women with interest. To see the original report go to http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html. I remember reading the original report from 1996 that caused some shockwaves through higher education. For most women in academe, we are quite familiar with the “chilly climate” and pipeline issues. When the report came out, I was in graduate school but already researching women in Political Science with what would become my dissertation. I read the first report with keen interest and looked to MIT as being a “worst” case scenario, given that the institution was a preeminent institute of technology. At that time, I assumed that my home discipline of Political Science would be far better. So began my entre into work about the chilly climate.
For those not familiar with these terms, let me back up and explain. The Chilly Climate refers to “The Chilly Climate” articles (1982, 1984) by Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler. Hall and Sandler first wrote, “The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?” in 1982 under the auspices of the Association of American Colleges (ACE). It was published by ACE in 1982 as part of the Project on the Status and Education of Women. In the article, they talk about the multiple ways that women scholars are made to feel as if they are imposters in academia by the institution, social mores, and overall gendered expectations. These points all translate into a different environment for women in the classroom. They note that women students are implicated in this by the lack of women faculty as mentors and as examples of role models who have “made” it. In 1984, they wrote, “Out of the Classroom: A Chilly Campus Climate for Women?” which was also published by ACE as part of the Project on the Status and Education of Women. In this report, they deal more explicitly with the multiple ways that women are treated or face the “chill” on campus with colleagues, administrators, and other institutional proceedings. In each report, the authors list recommendations to counter the chilly climate in the classroom and on campus. Simply put, their articles referred to the atmosphere in academe that women academics perceived as unfriendly to women, let alone their respective research. The articles covered the varied areas of concern in and outside of the classroom for both women students and faculty. Furthermore, women academics felt the chill more if their research examined women.
Particular to the women at MIT, they were dealing with a several concerns and some of the most visible ones were the dearth of women faculty in the sciences and engineering. The vast majority of the faculty were men. The environment was also one that did not view women faculty with the same level of respect at all levels of the pipeline—the pipeline refers to women pursuing study in the fields, graduate students, to the rank of the various ranks of professors. The culture at MIT was one that was not supportive of women and the study also found out that women faculty were underpaid compared to male faculty. I have quickly summarized the findings.
The latest report finds that women have made some inroads. In some cases the numbers of women faculty have doubled. But, we still see that in some colleges women are less than 20% of the faculty! I was reading the report and thinking of Virgina Valian’s book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women (1999) and remembered that it is harder to change the hearts and minds of people. It can be easy to change policy, but to actually change normative opinions about people is the hard work. I am not going to discount the work that MIT has put forth, but it saddens me to think that incoming graduate students are whispering that women were accepted into the graduate program based on affirmative action. Unfortunately, these conversations also influence the ways in which some students and faculty look at women faculty—are you here to make the numbers better or do you deserve this job. This idle gossip feeds the culture that the Reports are attempting to respond to. The latest MIT Report then is another example of how our work is not done. We need to be vigilant and make sure that our own home campuses are treating women graduate students and faculty in a fair manner.