I joined the faculty at MIT as an assistant professor. I believed that civil rights and affirmative action had solved gender discrimination and that I would not encounter it in my lifetime. I thought the only reason there were so few women on the science faculty at Harvard, where I had been a student, or MIT was that women had children and remained their primary caretakers and that men who did the type of science I was trying to do worked six or seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. So it was pretty obvious why there weren't any women there; how could you do these two full-time jobs at once?

Over the next 15 years, as I served on the faculty, I found out to my surprise that gender discrimination still existed. The way I discovered this was by watching how other women were treated. Because there were so few women, it took a long time. Being a scientist, I needed convincing evidence. But finally, after 15 years of observation, I knew that women of equal scientific ability and accomplishment were not valued and respected as highly as their male colleagues.

I cannot tell you how demoralizing this was. By the time I was convinced of it, I wished that I could age faster, so that I could retire, because it was so discouraging to see these brilliant and highly successful scientists treated unfairly. What kept me going was my passion for science—and the fact that I thought I was the one exception. I had a very difficult life at MIT, but I did not see that the same thing happening to these other women was also happening to me. I explained away each unpleasant incident by its special circumstances.

Looking back on that period of my life, I have to conclude that my failure to understand what was happening was due in large part to denial. I am a big proponent of denial, by the way.

But beginning about 8 or 9 years ago, a series of events occurred that opened my eyes. I wanted to change my research direction, and I needed to get some resources from the university. These were very modest resources—a small amount of additional lab space, a modest piece of equipment—things that everybody else already had had provided to them in quantity. At first my administrator helped me, but after another one stepped in I found it was extraordinarily difficult to get the things I needed. One day, a woman who washed glassware for the labs in the building said to me, “Nancy, why do these men have so much and you have so little?” It was that obvious. I should say that this struggle took about 50 percent of my time and 90 percent of my energy. Every day I would go home and try to recover from that day in order to prepare for the next one.

Finally, after some years of this, there was an incident that proved to be the last straw. The one that led me to say, “That's it.” The day it dawns on you that for all those years it is possible nobody ever saw you as an equal in the profession to which you gave so much of your life —that day is a very devastating day. I felt I had wasted 20 years of my life. For several days, I was paralyzed. But then, happily, despair turned to anger. I decided I would try to solve my problems, try to change my working environment.

At first I got absolutely nowhere. Soon I had worked my way right up the administration to the level of the president. So I sat down to give MIT its last chance. I wrote, “Dear President, there is discrimination here and you really ought to do something about it.” I showed this letter to a friend of mine, and he said, “You're not planning to send that, are you?”

So I thought I would ask another woman faculty member to read the letter and delete anything that might be offensive. I picked out a woman whom I admired enormously, although I barely knew her. She was enormously successful scientifically and politically correct to boot.

Looking back, it is hard to remember how difficult it was to show this woman my letter, because we have come such a long way in these past 6 years. But then I had to steel myself emotionally. I think the reason it was so difficult is because we grow up believing that if you are really good enough, you can make it on your own. Even in the face of discrimination. It had taken me 15 years to discover that it is not that simple at all. I had seen that discrimination can be extremely costly. It can prevent people from

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement