The dean’s assistant showed them into his conference room. Nancy had always been curious to see it; this was where the Science Council argued over tenure decisions. It was a stately room, with high ceilings and wood paneling. Nancy’s eyes went to the long polished-wood table that dominated the room. She thought of the opening scene of The Girls in the Balconywhich described when the newly formed Women’s Caucus of the New York Timesmet with the publisher and other men of the newspaper’s masthead across a 25-foot table, an obdurate, gleaming mahogany symbol of the 121-year-old institution the women were challenging. To the journalists in the book, it had seemed overpowering, “to go on as long as the eye could see.” This table was smaller, Nancy thought, but no less daunting.
Someone had set out soft drinks, coffee, and cookies on a credenza next to the table. Above it was a large photograph, and Nancy could see that the other women’s eyes had fixed on that. It was a picture of Robert Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, and the school’s five department heads. They were all men, as department heads had always been, and all grinning. One was wearing a tuxedo. They were holding their forefingers aloft to say, “We’re number one!” Suddenly all Nancy could see of the room was the photograph. She felt sick. This had all been a bad idea. She remembered what Penny had said all summer: “We’re not even on their radar screen.”
The women had spent the past month meticulously preparing a proposal for the dean, asking him to form a committee to examine the data on space, salaries, resources, and teaching assignments to make sure that women were being treated fairly compared with men. The committee would meet with each woman on the faculty once a year to determine any problems, and then recommend ways the dean could solve them. Only 17 of the School of Science’s 214 tenured faculty were women. Sixteen of them had signed a letter—polite, conciliatory, collaborative in tone—accompanying the proposal to the dean.
“We believe that discrimination becomes less likely when women are viewed as powerful, rather than weak, as valued, rather than tolerated by the Institute. The heart of the problem is that equal talent and accomplishment are viewed as unequal when seen through the eyes of prejudice.”
“There is a widespread perception among women faculty that there is consistent, though largely unconscious, gender discrimination within the Institute,” they wrote. “We believe that unequal treatment of women who come to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed, causes them to be accorded less recognition when they do, and contributes so substantially to a poor quality of life that these women can actually become negative role models for younger women. We believe that discrimination becomes less likely when women are viewed as powerful, rather than weak, as valued, rather than tolerated by the Institute. The heart of the problem is that equal talent and accomplishment are viewed as unequal when seen through the eyes of prejudice. If the Institute more visibly demonstrates that it views women as valuable, a more realistic view of their ability and accomplishments by their administrators, colleagues, and staff will ultimately follow.”
They had worried over every detail, met in secret, and shredded early drafts, fearful of being found out as activists or, worse, radicals. They assumed the dean would have already alerted the Institute’s lawyers.
But Penny was right. When Bob Birgeneau walked into his conference room for his three o’clock that afternoon, he didn’t even know what the meeting was about. He hadn’t read the letter or the proposal the women had so carefully written, shredded, and rewritten over the previous month. He was just back from Brookhaven National Lab, on Long Island, where he spent the better part of every summer running experiments on neutron scattering in the High Flux Beam Reactor. He had spent his early career avoiding administrative jobs, and while he liked his role as dean, he preferred being in the lab, especially at Brookhaven, where he did his own research without postdocs or graduate students to manage. He had returned recharged, as he always did. To the six women who sat waiting for him, he showed a picture of confidence and ease, a late-summer tan, and a broad smile.
If he had to, Birgeneau would have guessed they were there to talk about a dispute he knew well: the previous spring, Nancy had come to see him about having been removed from teaching the introductory biology course she’d developed, despite having earned high ratings from students. Instead, Nancy explained how they had come together over the summer, said that they wanted to work with the university, and explained their idea for the women’s committee. She had typed out notes, knowing she’d have trouble keeping her nerves in check. In bold she’d typed: “Progress at universities comes when committed faculty meet up with a committed administration. Opportunity exists now at MIT to do something important about this very important problem.”
The women went around the conference table, starting with Sylvia, then JoAnne. They described the arc of their careers: how optimistic they’d felt coming to MIT, only to end up feeling isolated, ignored, frustrated over resources. Lisa talked about salaries, relating how some women realized they’d been underpaid only after they got sudden raises. The women had known when they chose careers in science that they would have to make sacrifices in their personal lives, but they had not expected to be paid less than their male colleagues. None of the women in the room had children, Nancy told him: “They aren’t even married.”