Nancy Hopkins, a researcher and MIT professor, offers her observations on the experiences of female STEM majors.
Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a project in which we hope to explore the continued lack of female representation for employees and entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The first installment of this series can be found here.
Dr. Nancy Hopkins is a world-renowned molecular biologist and the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
During her long career as a researcher and educator, Hopkins says she has personally experienced gender discrimination in the STEM field — and witnessed her female students and colleagues struggle with bias in various phases of their scientific careers, too.
Hopkins has continually lobbied for positive changes in regards to gender equality. One notable effort led to the formation of a committee tasked with investigating gender bias on campus. The committee’s findings — presented as “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT” in 1999 — revealed that women felt increasingly marginalized as they ascended in their respective careers. The facts highlighted in the report are said to have been the inspiration behind the formation of an interscholastic collaboration referred to as “The MIT-9,” which sought to address issues of representation for women at major universities in America.
During her interview with me, Hopkins described her love for biology, her mentor and the injustices that have held back many women.
Edited interview excerpts below.
The Story Exchange: What led you to science?
I loved science and math from the time I went to school, and my mother encouraged this love. She arranged for me to go to science school for several summers when I was young, told me there had been scientists and engineers in my family, and that science was very exciting. Then Sputnik came along and the U.S. began to encourage anyone who loved science to go into it. So it was natural that I would major in math or science in college.
The Story Exchange: Were there moments when you felt discouraged because of your gender?
It never occurred to me then to be discouraged because I was a girl. I went to an all girls’ school from first grade through high school — perhaps that is why, but I don’t know. The first setback was when I went to college and was told I could not major in math because I was too far behind to ever catch up. Though I attended an exceptional school, in that era, many people thought girls didn’t want to learn math so they felt no need to teach much of it. I wasn’t upset by this, but I decided to take math secretly. Then, in my junior year of college [in the early 1960s] I switched to biology, which I fell head over heels in love with after one lecture.
The Story Exchange: What made you want to stay on that path, despite the obstacles at that time?
I often thought of quitting because it was such a stretch to do this, considering how women were raised in my generation. Women were expected to marry soon after college, have a family and put that first. They could have jobs, but not high-powered careers. I would almost certainly have quit many times if my mentor — and the professor who inspired me to love science, Jim Watson — had not encouraged me every time I thought of dropping out. I loved science, and he could always re-inspire me. He urged me on, telling me I had the gift to do it.
The Story Exchange: What sort of discrimination did you experience or see at MIT as the years progressed that inspired you to fight for equality?
I very, very gradually — over many years — came to see that when a woman made a discovery as important as a man’s discovery, she was not valued equally, nor was the importance of it. Her discovery might even be attributed to others. It was as if she were invisible.
The Story Exchange: Could you talk more about that?
Women spoke, but they were not heard. They published their results, but they were not mentioned. I had to see many examples of this over many years to be sure, because I had been so certain that science was a meritocracy. However, I finally came to be certain that even if a woman made a Nobel Prize-winning discovery, she might not get credit for it, be valued highly, or even be given the prize. This happened to men too, but not like this, and not with this constant frequency. It was such an odd phenomenon that it was very hard to believe. But finally I knew it was true, and could see how hard it made science for women. It wasn’t the science that was hard, but how women were treated that made it hard.
The Story Exchange: What advice would you offer to a young woman contemplating a career in STEM today?
For people who love it there really isn’t much choice — there’s nothing as exciting and endlessly interesting as science. So, my advice is go for it, but to also look hard to find a situation where you feel supported by your colleagues (or at least one powerful person) and where you can also pursue the science that really fascinates you. There are supportive environments and there are less supportive ones. Don’t give in to a bad situation for too long, and don’t let it drive you out either. There may be more options than you are aware of.
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