Twelve years ago M.I.T. acknowledged that it had discriminated against women in ways that stymied equality between female and male colleagues on campus. Since that time M.I.T. has worked hard to reverse this pattern. They have accomplished this through a series of steps and measures designed to promote women to leadership positions and to ensure that women have equal access to research and professional advancement.
Despite this positive reversal, some individuals now claim that these measures are ultimately more harmful than beneficial to women at M.I.T. The New York Times article which inspired this post, states that many female students struggle with how to respond to accusations from their male colleagues that their admission to M.I.T. is due primarily to affirmative action. According to the NYTs, even M.I.T. seems to acknowledge this,
But the primary issue in the report is the perception that correcting bias means lowering standards for women.
READ this NYTs article here: At M.I.T., Success Comes With Unexpected Consequences – NYTimes.com.
During the WIPA: Women & Public Policy Essay Contest one of the questions posed revolved around the question of gender quotas. We received some very insightful responses to this question and I was pleased that so many contributers found themselves similarly struggling to come to terms with the consequences of such a system despite their obvious benefit. Quotas at M.I.T. have clearly helped to ensure a minimum level of equity, allowing women to move forward on par with their male colleagues. However, other changes to the M.I.T. infrastructure, such as ensuring that female professors have equal lab and research space have demonstrated to the community that female faculty members are highly valued by M.I.T. not because of their gender but because of their intellectual capabilities and on-going research. Subtle changes in the organizational norms at M.I.T. have a much greater and more lasting impact on curtailing the pervasiveness of discrimination in the community by ensuring that the culture does not tolerate discrimination in any form.
I also applaud M.I.T. for appointing someone as accomplished as Susan Hockfield as President of M.I.T. This appointment clearly refutes those naysayers who argue that women in leadership or academic positions at M.I.T. are there only as a result of quotas. Dr. Hockfield is clearly an accomplished researcher in her own right,
Dr. Hockfield’s research has focused on the development of the brain and on glioma, a deadly kind of brain cancer. She pioneered the use of monoclonal antibody technology in brain research, leading to her discovery of a protein that regulates changes in neuronal structure as a result of an animal’s experience in early life. More recently she discovered a gene and its family of protein products that play a critical role in the spread of cancer in the brain and may represent new therapeutic targets for glioma. [Source: M.I.T.]
Despite this concerted effort by M.I.T. to ensure that quotas are not the sole cause for female leadership advancement at M.I.T. it is hard to erase the subtle distaste that quotas inevitability leave. This is not due to the false claim that women are in leadership positions only because of quotas, but instead due to the fact that quotas are even necessary to begin with. Gender quotas signal that there is an obvious and entrenched flaw in the institutional structure that discriminates against women. Furthermore, this discrimination is so ingrained that merely acknowledging its existence will not ‘fix’ the problem. Instead, the pervasiveness of the discrimination is such that a gender quota is necessary to begin to remedy the situation. This is what I find distasteful about gender quotas.
In light of this, it seems that quotas are indeed a necessary evil until organizational culture and structure are such that discrimination against members of the community become an almost unimaginable act. In this environment, simply unveiling discrimination would be sufficient to halt it is its tracks as a singular and egregious occurrence.
I truly believe that such a reality and environment is possible. My colleagues at SciencesPo and the interviews conducted by WIPA demonstrate that not only is gender discrimination an increasingly foreign concept, women do not even consider it as a significant obstacle on their future career trajectory. I hope that as the next generation of leaders begins to assume their place in the public policy sector we will see the need for these types of systems to slowly become obsolete.
Nevertheless, I would be curious to hear what our readers & members think. What have your experiences shown you? Is this future vision for gender equality merely a rosy pipe dream or do you see similar trends happening in your own environments?