A new report says women faculty has made “stunning progress,” although there is still discrimination. But John Leo says these “feelings-based” studies are more harmful than helpful.
In 1989, Wellesley College put out a report accusing itself of racial discrimination. Instead of evidence, the text focused on feelings. Non-whites didn’t feel at home. Some cafeteria food was unfamiliar; posters in the bookstores featured Bavarian castles but no Third-World settings. This “unconsciously white” bias was said to afflict minority students.
Many such fact-free, feelings-based bias reports followed at other colleges, all dependent on emotional tone and the willingness of the news media to overlook the scanty or absent evidence. Instead, the reports featured complaints of “subtle,” “stealthlike,” or “unconscious” factors that resulted in the undefined “marginalization” of women or minorities. The most successful of the batch was the 1999 report on gender bias at MIT, followed up by a second report in 2002 and a third this week.
The original MIT report was the work of biologist Nancy Hopkins, the feminist whose threat to faint later helped trigger the departure of Lawrence Summers from the presidency of Harvard. After long and loud protests, Hopkins was allowed to form a committee to look into her complaints, thus positioning her as the prosecutor, judge, and jury of MIT’s alleged gender offenses. Unsurprisingly, the all-female committee picked by Hopkins agreed with her charges. Discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptionsâ€¦ Once you “get it,” it seems almost obvious, the report said, swerving around old-fashioned factual findings.
Another section said that “interviews with women faculty revealed the tremendous toll that exclusion and marginalization take on their professional and private lives.” But the interviews were not in the report and neither was evidence of exclusion and its toll. Sponsors of the study said they avoided standard social science techniques, a peculiar decision for an institution devoted to science. The wording of the questions asked was not included and no tables showed the patterns of responses. Members of the panel spent some time measuring the size of men’s and women’s offices at MIT. Way in the back of the report was a brief statement that younger women on the faculty apparently disagreed with the thrust of the report: “untenured faculty feel that men and women are treated equally in terms of resources, salary, and other material benefits.”
The news media quickly threw itself behind the report, shaky as it was. The New York Times gave it uncritical Page One coverage. The impact was enormous. Foundations quickly donated more than a million dollars to see if other universities needed the MIT treatment and Hopkins was invited to the White House. MIT quickly capitulated. Robert Birgeneau, then dean of the MIT School of Science, announced that the report was “data driven. And that’s a very MIT thing.” This must have been hard for him to say, since the report was clearly data-free, but the comment apparently paid off for Birgeneau, who was quickly named president of the University of Toronto, and then chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The second report, also vague and feelings-based, dealt with four MIT schools not mentioned in Report One. It found “women more frequently reporting negative experiences, “feelings of exclusion,” and “marginalization.” At one point, the report tried to measure comparative discomfort levels of female and male professors, a wildly unscientific effort. One of the few critics willing to speak out, James Steiger, a statistician and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, told me, “any undergraduate in a research methods course could debunk these reports.”
The new report, On the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, 2011,” offers good news—“stunning progress” for women at the two schools, “an overwhelmingly positive view of MIT” from female faculty, and “more equable resource and salary distribution” since the 1999 report.
So everything is fine now, right? No. Since bias reports are forbidden to let good news linger, many complaints about misperceptions and marginalization are cited.
What’s still wrong at the schools?
Â· The expectation that women should have “soft and sweet” personalities.
Â· Offensive comments such as “It was long overdue that the award be given to a woman,” however well-meaning, “deprive the awardee of the satisfaction of knowing that it was purely because of respect for her accomplishments that she got the award.”
Â· Letters of recommendation for women are often faulty: “The proportion (of a recommending letter) devoted to intellectual brilliance compared to temperament is much less than for men.”
Â· Women faculty members, but not men, are invited to discuss their lives, career choice and families.
Â· The expectation that every committee should have a woman on it—a demand in the 1999 report—puts too much strain on women and can eat up 25-50 percent of their work time. Neither of the two committees that produced this report, by the way, had a male on it.
Most of these objections seem beyond the scope of even a vague and fact-free bias report. The major point here seems to be resentment that some at MIT now think standards for hiring and promotion of women faculty are lower than for male faculty. One woman said: “In discussions I hear others saying â€˜oh, she’ll get tenure ... because we need to have women.” These faulty perceptions, the report says, “can erode the confidence of women faculty.” Yes, they can. But faulty or not, that’s a predictable byproduct of the 1999 demands. A sharp focus on finding and promoting members of a designated group is bound to do that. Just ask African-Americans and Hispanics at colleges that adopt affirmative action.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Beast