A History of Gender Bias at MIT

The Exceptions chronicles the struggles of pioneering women educators seeking representation, equal salaries, and fair treatment at MIT in the 1990s.

By Peter F. Meiksins, Ph.D.

CREDIT: Scribner | Simon & Schuster

The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science1 provides a detailed account of how biologist Nancy Hopkins, Ph.D., led an effort in the late 1990s by 16 women faculty in STEM departments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to get the university to treat women faculty equally and to do something about the discrimination and harassment they experienced at work. Author Kate Zernike, who was a Boston Globe reporter at the time that the MIT story broke, details how Dr. Hopkins and her colleagues collaborated to demand change and produced a report documenting the unequal treatment of women at MIT. The report received significant attention in major media outlets in 1999, leading MIT to acknowledge the existence of discrimination and eventually positioning the university as a leader in efforts to promote gender equality in STEM.

Zernike’s book provides an opportunity to look back to a time, not so long ago, when virtually no women held faculty positions in STEM departments, and to trace the process by which things began to change. At the same time, however, it forces us to pose a question: How much have things changed? Have we fully embraced the experiences of Dr. Hopkins and her colleagues that led them to take a stand?

Pioneering spirit

Dr. Hopkins became interested in biology when she took a course taught by James Watson, Ph.D., while she was an undergraduate at Radcliffe College in the early 1960s (Harvard University did not admit women students at the time). Dr. Watson encouraged her to pursue a doctorate, but she was skeptical; she saw few women in science, and she wanted to have a family. She settled on a goal of conducting a prize-winning experiment by the time she was 30, then pausing to have a family. With this goal in mind, she began graduate study at Yale University, but left to pursue a research opportunity at Harvard with Mark Ptashne, Ph.D. Eventually, she completed a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1970–71, and she also married. Then, with Dr. Watson’s support, she became a postdoctoral researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Biological Labs, because she could commute there from Cambridge, where she lived with her husband, a faculty member at Harvard. In 1973, Dr. Hopkins was recruited to MIT to work in a new cancer research laboratory that was headed by Salvador Luria and David Baltimore, Ph.D., and was made possible by federal funding. At the time, she was the only woman faculty member at the center and one of a very small number of women faculty at MIT.

Zernike’s book focuses on Dr. Hopkins, but also tells the story of several other pioneering women faculty at MIT, all of whom struggled to obtain conventional academic positions. These include Mary Lou Pardue, Ph.D., who earned a doctorate in biology at Yale, and then — concluding she would not get an academic position — pursued postdoctoral work in Edinburgh, Scotland. Dr. Pardue was later encouraged to apply for a faculty position at MIT but was summarily rejected. It was only in 1972 — after a lecture she gave at Cold Spring Harbor (invited by cytogenetic scientist Barbara McClintock, Ph.D.) attracted the attention of MIT faculty — that she was successfully recruited to a faculty position in cell biology at MIT. Tellingly, Dr. McClintock herself spent most of her career without a university faculty position, although she went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.

Another early woman faculty member at MIT was physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, Ph.D., who obtained a regular faculty position in 1968. Zernike describes her as the first “female superstar” at MIT. After earning a Ph.D. at The University of Chicago, she received National Science Foundation funding to conduct research at Cornell University, where her husband had a faculty position. When the postdoc ended, Cornell refused to hire her. Her husband quit in response, and both took jobs as researchers at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Later, fearing that she would be fired because she often worked from home while taking care of their four children, Dr. Dresselhaus accepted a one-year teaching position at MIT. Her students loved her and petitioned to have her retained, and university officials agreed to make the position permanent.

Discriminatory practices

Having broken through the barriers that kept women scientists out of faculty positions, Dr. Hopkins and her female colleagues encountered a male-dominated, often hostile work environment. Much of Zernike’s book is devoted to describing the various forms of discrimination they experienced. These included what contemporary readers will recognize as a familiar list of behaviors: unequal allocation of resources such as lab space and salary support for researchers, exclusion from informal networks through which information and resources often flowed, unequal treatment in teaching assignments, and being ignored or treated badly by fellow researchers and faculty members. For example, Dr. Hopkins’ department chair prevented her from accepting an invitation from a male colleague to co-teach a course on genetics because he believed that students wouldn’t take a female lecturer seriously.

Dr. Hopkins was particularly concerned about not receiving appropriate credit for the work she did. Early in her career at MIT, she chose to move her lab away from others in the cancer research unit because she believed colleagues were stealing her ideas and materials. In the late 1970s, her research led to a breakthrough in understanding how different viruses produced different cancers; however, another researcher claimed credit for the discovery, leading the chief of molecular biology at the National Cancer Institute, a man she had never met before, to travel to Boston to express his dismay about this turn of events. Most significantly, in the early 1990s, Dr. Hopkins was asked to help develop a new required biology course for undergraduates at MIT. She worked hard to develop the curriculum, and she co-taught the course with David Botstein, a star teacher and entrepreneurial faculty member in the program.

However, after several years, she was told without explanation that another faculty member would be replacing her. It turned out that Botstein and the replacement faculty member had an opportunity to commercialize the course, including writing the text and starting a company that would produce materials to support the course. She complained but was not reinstated. The conflict continued to simmer, leading her to consider taking legal action.

In the wake of this experience, and with the help of Ruth Perry, Ph.D., founder of MIT’s Women’s Studies Program, Dr. Hopkins brought together a group of tenured women faculty from the College of Science to exchange information about their experiences. They soon discovered they had common experiences of unequal and even hostile treatment, a reality they were reluctant to acknowledge. They agreed to propose the establishment of a presidential committee to “examine the data on space, salaries, resources, and teaching assignments and make sure that women were being treated fairly compared to men.” A subgroup approached the dean, who, with the president’s support, agreed to a modified version of the proposal. Zernike argues that he had a “eureka” moment: “Had any of them come to him individually … he would have explained their complaints as the idiosyncrasies of a department, a situation or relationship, a budget dispute, or internal politics,” she writes. “Now he had six women all together and hearing the uniform unhappiness in their stories, he suddenly realized, We’ve got a big problem. This wasn’t just about lab space or a course, it was a pattern … [a] problem in the system. These women were not difficult.”

Revealing report

Dr. Hopkins was asked to chair the presidential committee, which held its first meeting in early 1995 and completed its report in August. The report documented salary inequalities, gendered differences in how the university approached funded researchers, and continued failures to increase the number of women science faculty. The report was not shared widely but did encourage the dean to make various changes within the college.

Several years later, faculty chair Lotte Bailyn, Ph.D., asked Dr. Hopkins to write a “process report” summarizing what the committee had done and modeling how other colleges might follow suit. That report was published in the faculty newsletter in 1999, with endorsements from the dean and the university president. It soon received media attention on national television and in major newspapers such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times, making discrimination in academic science into front-page news.

Zernike frames this history as the story of a small number of pioneering women who successfully overcame the perception that they didn’t belong on a science faculty, despite their achievements as researchers. She argues that they succeeded because they worked together, rather than as individuals, and used their skills as researchers to gather data to support their case. And she emphasizes that all of this required that they overcome their own reluctance to see their experiences as the result of systemic discrimination rather than the actions of unpleasant individuals or of their own errors and limitations. This was not easy to do, for, as Zernike notes, “the women had spent their careers trying not to think about being women, hoping they would be seen as scientists.” Dr. Hopkins herself summarized the problem in the process report she wrote at Dr. Bailyn’s request: “Discrimination had been allowed to continue … because no one, not even the women themselves, recognized it: ‘It did not look like what we thought discrimination looked like.’”

It is tempting to argue that The Exceptions describes a historical period that has now ended and that the lessons learned by Dr. Hopkins and her colleagues are now widely acknowledged. But to do so would be to repeat the error of MIT’s women faculty who didn’t recognize the discrimination they experienced. Zernike notes that in 2005, Dr. Hopkins found herself walking out of the meeting at which then Harvard president Lawrence Summers made his infamous remarks about why there were so few women in STEM (suggesting women lack the aptitude for science and the willingness to work long hours). Was he just an individual outlier, or did his views reflect a broader set of cultural beliefs and practices?

MIT’s program in professional education recently issued a report titled “The Gender Gap in STEM: Still Gaping in 2023,” lamenting the reality that women made up only 28% of the STEM workforce in 2023 and arguing that structural barriers to gender equality persist.2 A quick look at MIT itself reveals that while the university has made considerable progress toward gender equity in STEM, much remains to be done: Just more than 26% of all MIT faculty were women in 2021, and this includes faculty in more gender-equal fields outside science, engineering, and computing.3

It should also be emphasized that women scientists and engineers continue to be reluctant to describe their negative experiences as “systematic discrimination” or to question the culture of science in which structural barriers are embedded, as research reviewed in the 2023 SWE State of Women in Engineering annual literature review continues to show.4 In short, the story told in The Exceptions remains current and speaks to present-day reality, not just to the experiences of a bygone era.


  1. Zernike, Kate. The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. NY: Scribner, 2023.
  2. https://professionalprograms.mit.edu/blog/leadership/the-gender-gap-in-stem/
  3. https://facts.mit.edu/employees/faculty/
  4. See sidebar in the 2023 State of Women in Engineering issue of SWE Magazine on Mary Blair-Loy and Erin A. Cech. 2022. Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the author

Peter Meiksins, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of sociology at Cleveland State University and a contributing writer to SWE Magazine.