NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with author Kate Zernike about her new book Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST;
Molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins was 19 when she began to meet her fate. He walked into Harvard University to listen to a lecture by James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA.
NANCY HOPKINS: And at the end of the hour I was converted to this knowledge. So I didn’t think about being, what exactly I wanted to be a girl who wanted to do this. I just knew I had to do it.
SHAPIRO: That’s how she describes her first career for the Infinite History project at MIT, the same institute that turned her into an activist activist for gender equality. Since the 1990s, Hopkins has held the faculty at MIT. He had ambitious plans for genetic research, but he was engaged in bar after bar in the same opportunities, even in the workplace, as humans. So he did what a scientist does. She is great.
HOPKINS: So I started collecting data and lab space with a tape measure so I could convince my administrators that I deserved that extra couple of square inches of space. But nothing happened as quickly as I wanted it to happen.
SHAPIRO: Then he talked to other women. It also documents what has gone on and grown into landmark studies that have found widespread discrimination against female professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
KATE ZERNIKE: The idea that they were able to gather this information and make their case for the university really struck me as a kind of model for social change.
SHAPIRO: That journalist Kate Zernike, who first reported on the crisis study in the Boston Globe in 1999. She revisits the story in a new book called “Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Struggle for Women in Science.” I spoke with Zernike about why Hopkins and his colleagues were hesitant to complain at first.
ZERNIKE: It starts with the little things, things that I probably shouldn’t complain about. But little by little, over time, they know that they have added, you know, less money, less space in the lab, all the things that really hinder the ability to do science. So really, they were so angry about their science that they didn’t complain until those problems were in the way of the scientists doing it.
SHAPIRO: Can I just ask – you’re an incredibly respected reporter, but you’re not a scientist, and this book has some science involved in it. How do you wrap your head around, like, the real hard science that’s here?
ZERNIKE: Yeah. You know, well, one thing, I would say, I had great teachers in Nancy and other people who were doing science, so they were patient with me in explaining. But it is also really important to have this knowledge right. I think it really helped me in the end just to see all these experiences as a story and people walking through that story.
SHAPIRO: One of the things that I found so interesting was that you were talking about these women thinking that they were alone. And one of the reasons why trailblazing women didn’t want to talk about the challenges they faced was because they didn’t want to deter others. But the effect is that those who are thinking behind them, well, if no one else is going through this, it must be me or my own thinking.
ZERNIKE: Right, exactly. And that is one of the reasons I called the book “Exceptions”. Not only were these women excellent in talent and candor, but when they came before me, they thought I was well. It’s just time. It’s just a personality conflict. It wasn’t until later in the game in their careers that they thought, oh, no, this happens to other women. And one of the reasons they couldn’t see it was because there were so few of them.
SHAPIRO: You know, you’ve said that one reason this story appealed to you is that it’s such a model of social change. But at one point, your main character, Nancy Hopkins, sees a fork in the road. It is a choice he must make whether to file a lawsuit against MIT. And I think some of the points relate to the larger question of whether it is more productive to change the organization from within or without, to work within its boundaries or to approach it in a more structured way, to collaborate or to go adversarial. So, writing this book about that question makes you feel differently?
ZERNIKE: Absolutely. And most importantly, as you know, we wrote this from the year 2018 until the year, and there has been a social movement, a social change, a social protest in these years. But Nancy didn’t have everything she wanted in the end, but they could actually work within the system. I think that some of the men in this book will be discussed with whom I have reason to work, but, of course, they were partners. So I think it’s really important to find those partners.
SHAPIRO: How do you view the people who created and maintained the culture of crisis? I don’t know if they were malicious or forgetful or what.
ZERNIKE: That is a great question. So I wanted to put this into context and just show how everyone was thinking about this at the time. I think that perhaps men and even women were really victims of their time and victims of their context. We just didn’t see how terrible some of that stuff was. You know, one thing, for example, in 1979, Nancy wants to teach a class with another man, and they’re excited about it. And the head of his department, who is very curious, who cares deeply about good teaching, says that you cannot do it, because any thing in front of the audience from a woman will not be information. And in time Nancy agreed with him because she thought it was right. And I think there is a tendency to dismiss the idea of unconscious prejudice. We all think, oh, I remember, I know what that is. I do not have. But I think this book can remind us that, in fact, we all struggle with this. All of us are always pushing into it.
SHAPIRO: What’s more important to take away from this is that if you think this is happening, you’re probably right, even if it’s not for you; Or do you not confirm the assurances that all is well, if you know that in your heart it is not? Like, how did these women generally get out of this experience?
ZERNIKE: I think there are two things. Again, as I say, it only helps to understand or see through the eyes of another – in this case Nancy – how this happens and how it accumulates. But I think those lessons, yes, we need to talk about this. And I don’t think you can do that even in an opponent. These women went around in a scientific, almost clinical way, and they did it persuasively. MIT, as you say, should not be forced into a lawsuit. to do the right thing. I think it’s another lesson, you know, that this country is facing right now, yet another discussion about affirmative action. And these women were almost all in the ’70s affirmative action, which was the first big push. and in truth they all trusted in meritocracy. They all thought that if they just did their science, they would deserve to rise to the top. And what they found is that meritocracy is not true.
SHAPIRO: You know, he briefly summarizes the progress of the book that MIT did after the report. But I’m curious today. Do you know how MIT is currently doing on some of these issues?
ZERNIKE: Yeah, it’s totally incredible. So now essentially MIT, as of this year, is run by women. Thus, the head of the university, the president, the director of research, the chancellor, the dean of sciences are all women. In the School of Engineering, which is the flagship school at MIT, there are eight departments, and five of them are led by women. So that is incredible to say. But the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine conducted a study in 2018, and found that 50% of female science faculty felt they had been sexually harassed. But they were not talking about overt sexual assault or even sexual coercion. In reality, there was such intellectual marginalization, the assumptions that women could not do science. And it is really the last hurdle of this fight.
SHAPIRO: Kate Zernike’s new book is called “Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.” Many thanks.
ZERNIKE: Thank you, Ari.
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