Unlikely rebels with a cause

But it was the early 1960s; women at high levels of science were as rare as snow leopards

Bonnie Garmus | The New York Times


THE EXCEPTIONS: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science
Author: Kate Zernike 
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 421
Price: $30

The word “exception” implies rules, and as we know, rules are made to be broken. But in real life, it can be a frustrating business — especially if you’re a woman in science, especially in the decades leading up to the 21st century and especially if you’re not the rule-breaking type.
There were 16 rule breakers on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And exactly what these women endured for the right to do their work is the subject of Kate Zernike’s excellent and infuriating new book.

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Inspired by a story Zernike (now a reporter at The New York Times) broke for The Boston Globe in 1999, The Exceptions is an intimate, behind-the-scenes account of how those scientists conducted a four-year study that resulted in MIT’s admitting to a long history of sexual discrimination.
The unlikely leader of the 16, without a firebrand bone in her body, was Nancy Hopkins. A Harvard-educated molecular biologist and cancer researcher, Hopkins was the quintessential brainiac — a scholarship kid who skipped 10th grade, went to Radcliffe and believed, because it’s only logical, that as long as she applied her intellect, curiosity and passion, she would succeed.
But it was the early 1960s; women at high levels of science were as rare as snow leopards. Hopkins set a timeline: She wanted to do something to alleviate human suffering within 10 years. Then she’d move into Phase 2: Marriage and children. Without such a regimented plan, Hopkins knew that she, like so many bright women of her generation, could, as Zernike puts it, “easily slide from graduation to marriage, a dog, children, the suburbs. A fate she thought of as a kind of death by privilege.”
She found her calling in James Watson’s introductory biology course. It’s there she was first introduced to the double helix, “the code that gave form and function to all of nature.” The next year, Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins would win the Nobel Prize for their discovery of DNA.
But their ground-breaking discovery had already been made by somebody else; it was Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography that first revealed the double helix. And Watson knew it — he’d been shown her photograph without her permission.
According to Watson, Franklin was “something of a termagant”: Unpleasant, unfeminine, stubborn, lacking lipstick. He would later go on to claim that she had no idea what her photograph contained — implying that she wasn’t bright enough to understand her own work. For many years, Franklin received no credit.
Hopkins hadn’t yet heard Franklin’s side of the story. She was enthralled with Watson; he’d not only given her a position in his lab but encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. As the years ticked by, Zernike shows us Hopkins numbering her days in the lab with a palpable resignation. While she loved her work, it was not without its regular humiliations. Her introduction to Francis Crick started not with a handshake, but with his placing his hands on her breasts. “What are you working on?” he asked. Later, she was sexually assaulted by a colleague.
But Hopkins also believed in the promise of affirmative action. In 1964, the Johnson administration prohibited employment discrimination based on race, colour, religion or national origin. In 1967, LBJ amended the law to include the word “sex.” For women like Hopkins, it was a signal that the playing field had been levelled. Suit up, ladies! You’ve made the team. Or at least the bench.
Because despite Hopkins’s belief that science should be meritocratic, it was not. Even when she had to choose between science and marriage (spoiler alert: Science won), she still found herself labouring under a sexist system. Reading the litany of indignities she suffered — a tiny lab space, a salary well below that of her male colleagues, her name omitted from papers — you’ll find yourself wondering not just why she stayed for decades, but how.
Then, as Zernike relates, came yet another blow. Her popular Introduction to Biology course was commandeered by a trusted co-developer of the class. He and another scientist had a plan to make millions from textbooks, videos and CD-ROMs — all based on seven years of joint work. And lest you think we’re still stuck in the 1960s, this was 1992 — “the Year of the Woman.”
But then a miracle occurred: MIT women faculty members finally compared notes. Being scientists, they got out their tape measures and calculated their lab spaces; made a list of who got what equipment, how salaries compared, how grants were awarded, who sat on which committees and how many outside offers they had received compared with their male counterparts. A pattern soon emerged. In 1994, the six departments that constituted the School of Science employed 15 tenured women and 194 men.
Then-President Charles Vest agreed the evidence was irrefutable and committed to change, and other universities around the country followed suit. Today Hopkins is the Amgen professor of biology emerita at MIT, focusing on advocacy for cancer prevention and research, while co-founding, with Sangeeta Bhatia and Susan Hockfield, the Future Founders Initiative to increase the number of female faculty members who start biotechnology companies.
Thanks to Zernike, we see the personal toll unconscious bias takes — not just in time lost or talent discarded, but on the greater good. The good news is, Zernike’s book will inspire a host of non-renegades to do something about it. Rules are indeed made to be broken. Have at it.
©2023 The New York Times News Service  

First Published: Feb 26 2023 | 10:36 PM IST

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