What motivated the landmark 1999 study that you championed on gender bias at MIT?
It was a final straw. At age 50, after 20 years as a scientist, I found that it was impossible for me to get the supplies and lab space I needed to do my work. I thought, ‘I’m not going to tolerate this any more’. I told another woman, and she said she was experiencing the same thing. We talked to other women scientists at MIT and realized that we were all hitting the same roadblocks.
What was the reception like from your male colleagues when you began to speak out?
It was not too good. Some in my department were downright hostile and that was a problem for me. But suddenly I had eight women and four men on the study committee, and also Robert Birgeneau, then dean of science, whom I could actually talk to about this.
Reports like this often fall on deaf ears. What made the difference here?
We put in a huge amount of work, 5 years, just to try and understand the scope of the problem, before we wrote the report. The internal report on which the 1999 report was based was very long, and detailed enough that if you were a scientist and read it, you could see how what was happening to us would make your life as a scientist very hard. It was also a miracle that Charles Vest [then president of MIT] realized that there was a problem and was willing to publicly endorse the report.