The Stereotyping of Female Scientists

Professor Hazel Sive, associate dean of MIT's School of Science, talks about the women of the nation's top tech program.

hazel sive
(Image credit: Christopher Harting/Courtesy MIT)

You first joined the faculty of MIT 20 years ago, when female professors there were a rarity. What was it like then?

It was a well-known secret that the female faculty earned less than their male colleagues — on average, 20 percent less than what their male peers were earning. There were also other quantifiable differences, like lab space. A male faculty member would have 2,000 square feet, while a female faculty member would get 400 square feet.

In 1999, a landmark study exposed deeply entrenched sexism among the science and engineering faculty at MIT. As a result, the university instituted a more flexible tenure policy and gave many female professors hefty raises. That sounds like the right response, no?

Yes, but a lot of serious issues have surfaced as a result. There's a perception now that the hiring process is unfair. People think, Oh, she was hired because we need women. And it's not just men who feel that way — women who initially came to MIT thinking they're stunningly good say they now worry they were hired just because they were women. In our most recent report [on the status of women faculty at MIT], we also learned that women still have to overcome a number of unconscious biases that creep into the hiring process. The hiring committee, for example, will note how a woman is dressed, but they won't do that for a man. Or we'll get letters of recommendation for women that talk about how organized they are in the lab, which may sound neutral and nice, but actually detracts from the candidate.

One female professor cited in your report was told by an older male colleague that she wouldn't get tenure if "she was bouncing a kid on her knee at night." Were you surprised to learn how much sexism still exists at MIT?

It was a shock. There are some older male faculty members who have a harder time accepting that women can be their equals. That's much less true among the younger male faculty. They've grown up with female mentors. It's easier for them to forget about gender and focus on intellect.

There's a stereotype of female scientists as being Teva-wearing eggheads. Do women at MIT feel they need to play down their looks in order to be taken seriously?

The Teva stereotype isn't necessarily accurate. You want people to take you seriously, so you can't come across as soft, which is synonymous with compliant. For many women, that means dressing in a way that can be considered unfeminine. The day before I went for my first interview, I made a pact with myself to stop wearing makeup. It took me years to gain the confidence to start wearing cosmetics again.

What about the student body — is sexism an issue for them, too?

Yes, unfortunately. Some female students have been told they got into MIT because they are women, not because they are excellent. And while this doesn't happen to me anymore, some female professors say they've had students come into their office, mistake them for support staff, and ask where the professor is. The more female professors we have, the less this will be a problem.

What advice do you have for women scientists seeking careers in academia?

Choose your partners carefully. Having someone who will share child care, who will not expect you to give up your career for theirs, is something to establish at the outset. Too often, we see women take lesser positions than their male partners. It's usually not the other way around.