Sexism at MIT August 12, 2006Posted by C.A.R.D in Alla Karpova, Card, Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination, E-Mail, glass ceiling, Harvard, Hockfield, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, scientist, Sexism, Sexism at MIT, Sexist, Susumu Tonegawa, Virginia Valian.
WHEN SUSAN Hockfield was named president at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the university’s first female leader said she hoped her presence would “give confidence to girls and young women that there are opportunities that will be open to them that they can’t imagine right now.”
Hockfield has her first major chance now to display some imagination over such opportunities on her campus. An MIT professor, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, was accused in Globe stories of bullying a scientist into turning down a job offer from the school. Tonegawa sent the scientist, Alla Karpova, a discouraging e-mail less than an hour after the MIT Biology Department offered her a post at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Despite his Nobel Prize , the 66-year-old Tonegawa, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, may have seen Karpova as a threat to his preeminence in neuroscience, even though she is less than half his age.
After complimenting Karpova on her “intelligence, energy, and engaging demeanor,” Tonegawa wrote in an e-mail that he had a “strong reservation about having you as a faculty colleague” because of a “serious overlap in research interest and approach.” He added, “For career development (tenure evaluation), it is disadvantageous for a junior faculty (you) to have a collaborative arrangement with a senior faculty member (me) . . . I am sorry . . . I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague.”
Karpova wrote Tonegawa to say she had hoped to avoid any competition and that she “would give so much to have someone like you as my mentor.” Tonegawa wrote back, “It is a hard thing for a young person like you to establish a lab . . . where no senior faculty members in the immediate environment can provide mentoring as well as work support.” Tonegawa urged Karpova to take a competing offer “rather than plunge into the hot pan.”
On basic courtesy alone, it seems that Hockfield needs to take Tonegawa to the woodshed. Eleven women MIT professors wrote Hockfield to say that it was wrong for “a senior faculty member with great power and financial resources to behave in an uncivil, uncollegial, and possibly unethical manner toward a talented young scientist who deserves to be welcomed at MIT.”
Hockfield has put together a committee to examine campus collaboration in neuroscience. It is possible, like most human beings who have a lot of responsibilities, that Karpova’s desire for mentorship hit Tonegawa at a time where he understandably could not counsel a new person. But going to the next level of talking about being personally uncomfortable with her, not recommending other potential mentors, and urging a “young person” not to “plunge into the hot pan” can easily smack of the kind of patronization and discouragement that convinces untold numbers of women that it is not worth it to compete in many of the male-dominated sciences.
While not commenting directly on the MIT case, psychologist Virginia Valian of Hunter College, codirector of the Gender Equity Project that studies glass ceilings for women scientists, says research still shows that women are not evaluated as positively as men even when their performance is equal. Such perceptions were hotly debated last year when then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers questioned women’s “innate differences” in math and science.
“It’s not about whether women need hand-holding,” Valian said over the telephone. “It’s about giving credit where credit is due. Both men and women have trouble doing it with women.”
Hockfield should remind Tonegawa of his own past roadblocks. In the 1960s, he left his native Japan for graduate studies, fearing he might “gradually lose enthusiasm” in a rigid academic climate. After winning the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1987, he said, “I could not have done the work I am doing now had I stayed in a Japanese university.” He said he could “freely display originality” in the United States.
In his Nobel lecture, he said he was also aided in the early 1970s by gracious immunology researchers in Basel, Switzerland, who “became my tutors and were most helpful to me getting into a new field.” He received their help despite having “no formal training in immunology whatsoever.” He said he gained their support by “talking to them, reading papers, and asking questions.”
Hockfield needs to make sure that young scientists, especially women, will not lose their enthusiasm as Karpova did less than an hour after the Biology Department, having read her papers, offered a job. Tonegawa may not have had time to mentor, but it appears he could have been a lot more helpful getting her into the field.