Up: PCAST Testimony

PCAST Testimony

Ellen Spertus

June 24, 1992

Originally I was going to talk about MIT's undergraduate research opportunities program and how well it prepared me for graduate school, but I decided it was more important to let you know the problems faced by women at research universities.

People often talk about having special programs to encourage women in science. One should not conclude from this that the educational needs of women are different from those of men. They aren't. The fact is we are not treated the same as men in coed settings, and special programs are needed to make up for this mistreatment and not for any deficiency in women. Study after study has found bias against females at every level of the education process. I assume you are familiar with the reports from the American Association of University Women and the Association of American Colleges.

These biases exist not just in reports, of course, but in actual student life. I have heard that female MIT undergraduates have been told by professors that they don't belong here and were only admitted through affirmative action. Not only is the statement unkind, but it is untrue. Women's grade point averages are the same as men's, even when adjusted for major, and they graduate at a higher rate. Can you imagine coming to a challenging institute, filled with bright people, and, already unsure of yourself, having professors tell you that you aren't good enough before you've even had a chance to prove yourself?!

The situation doesn't necessarily get better after a woman has had the chance to prove herself. A woman in another graduate program told me that when she passed her qualifiers, her male classmates told her, ``Of course they passed you. They wouldn't fail a woman at the same time as they passed some men.'' The same response greeted a woman I know when she got tenure. It didn't occur to these people to say, ``Good job! You should be proud of yourself!''

Videotapes of classroom interaction have found the following unconscious biases:

While each isn't a big deal in and of itself, the cumulative effect of all this is to make a woman doubt herself. If faculty members and classmates didn't pay attention to you except to flirt, wouldn't you doubt your ability too? People have been talking about special programs to encourage women and minorities. How about keeping the current programs from discouraging these groups? I know of an extremely talented woman who left graduate school, on the advice of her advisor, because they both knew the sexist mistreatment she was receiving would continue. (This was not at MIT.) While special programs are useful and indeed necessary, they should not be used as an excuse to continue allowing the mistreatment of women in mixed settings.

While I've painted a bleak picture, there is hope. The faculty in computer science here at MIT has been educated in the subtle and not-so-subtle biases against women, and they have been working to create a learning environment where women truly have equal opportunity. I realize that people are often resentful of having agendas pushed on them from above, but do what you can to educate people about bias against women. Not only is educating people the first step in getting them to change their behavior, but it shows that women's underrepresentation does not mean they are inferior, a conclusion I fear that people are now making.

Thank you for your attention.