The measuring tape heard round the world

Kate Zernike and Nancy Hopkins sit at a table addressing an audience in a classroom. A blackboard appears behind them.

At an event hosted by the MIT School of Science, biologist Nancy Hopkins (right) and journalist Kate Zernike discuss “The Exceptions," which focuses on the story of 16 “exceptional” scientists on the MIT faculty, who, with Hopkins as their unlikely leader, became heroes in the fight for gender equality. Image credit: Maia Weinstock

On a recent evening at MIT, over a hundred people gathered at Boynton Hall for a conversation with Amgen Professor of Biology Emerita Nancy Hopkins and journalist Kate Zernike. The topic of discussion was Zernike’s book, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science,” which made its official debut at the end of February.

“The Exceptions” centers on Hopkins’ remarkable life and career and tells the story of 16 “exceptional” female scientists on the MIT faculty, who, with Hopkins as their unlikely leader, became heroes in the fight for gender equality. As a result of their work, in 1999 MIT publicly admitted to discriminating against its female faculty, a move that forced academic institutions across the country to reckon with pervasive sexism in science. Kate Zernike, now a correspondent at The New York Times, was a reporter at The Boston Globe at the time and was the first to break the story of MIT’s historic admission.

The discussion, which fittingly took place on International Women’s Day, began with an introduction from Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and dean of the School of Science, who sponsored the event with the Department of Biology. After welcoming attendees, both in-person and virtual, she shared an anecdote about the tools that scientists use to measure things. “I’m an experimental physicist,” she explained. “My entire research career has been spent measuring very, very precise distances.” As a result, Mavalvala was fascinated with one particular incident from Hopkins’ career, which is chronicled in chapter 15 of “The Exceptions.”

In 1973, Hopkins became an assistant professor at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research, which would later become the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. She spent more than a decade mapping RNA tumor virus genes before switching research fields to develop molecular technologies for working with zebra fish. The work required funding, equipment, and — most importantly — more space in which to house her fish tanks. But Hopkins’s male colleagues routinely took up more than their fair share of all of those resources. After more than 10 years at MIT, Hopkins still had less laboratory space than any other senior faculty member in the building. The head of the cancer center refused to believe that things were so unequal, so one night in 1993, Hopkins got down on her hands and knees with a measuring tape and proved it.

Mavalvala, whose research depends on precise measurement, found herself particularly affected by the story. “I have this newfound regard for the lowly measuring tape,” she declared.

“The story struck me, in a way that I think you more than any other audience can appreciate, as very MIT,” Zernike recalled to the attendees. This sort of thing could only happen, she thought, at an institution whose Latin motto translates to “mind and hand.”

When Zernike’s editor tipped her off that something was happening at MIT regarding gender discrimination, she had initially been skeptical. It was 1999, and so many doors had already been opened for women — surely the fight for equality was pretty much over. If few women pursued careers in science, perhaps they just weren’t interested. Science, after all, was a meritocracy.

Hopkins had spent much of her career assuming the same thing. For decades, she dealt with subtle and blatant instances of discrimination. She was told she could not teach genetics on the grounds that students wouldn’t trust information coming from a female professor. Despite years of hard work and numerous ingenious discoveries, she struggled to obtain tenure. And she simply wasn’t getting the same respect, money, or space that the men on the faculty did.

Hopkins eventually joined forces with 15 other women on the MIT science faculty to bring the issue of gender discrimination to light. After four years of work, and with the unexpected endorsement of the university administration, they produced the 1999 “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT.”

The results of the study suggested that science was not, in fact, a meritocracy. Women were interested in pursuing degrees and careers in science, but they encountered barriers every step of the way. Between blatant acts of discrimination as well as unconscious bias, it was simply more difficult to make it as a woman in science.

Zernike adored that these women had addressed the problem the same way they would a science experiment — with rigorous data analysis and an MIT mindset. But she was equally fascinated by MIT’s response to the study results — their willingness to admit shortcomings, and their dedication to making things better. “In my business,” said Zernike, “that’s known as a man-bites-dog story.”

Though Zernike chose the title her book to refer to the 16 “exceptional” female scientists who had the courage to openly acknowledge and fight back against discrimination, she also said it could apply as well to the Institute’s administration, which admitted wrongdoing and made significant changes as a result. “I would say that MIT itself is the exception for having done this,” Zernike said.

Following her remarks, Zernike was joined on stage by Hopkins for a conversation about the writing of “The Exceptions.” Hopkins described knowing early on that her story and the stories of the 15 other female faculty members were exceptional and that they would need an “exceptional writer.” “You have to have a rigorous New York Times reporter,” she joked. “Somebody who gets the dirt.”

The event ended with an audience Q&A session, during which audience members, including current MIT students, expressed frustration with the continued impact of sexism in science, and Zernike and Hopkins discussed the work that still remains to be done to achieve equality.

MIT’s Program in Women’s and Gender Studies hosted a similar discussion on April 26. Moderated by Ruth Perry, professor emerita of literature, the event featured a panel including Zernike; Hopkins; Leigh Royden, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Geology and Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; Lorna Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, a professor of mechanical engineering and MacVicar Fellow in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Sangeeta Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. The event was co-sponsored by the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences’ programs in History, STS, Literature, and Comparative Media Studies/Writing.