Susan S. Silbey
In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that just under 50% of female workers claim to have personally experienced sexual harassment at work, and over 40% of men report that they have witnessed harassment. Some men enjoy dominating others, and some seem to believe that women are, and should be, willing to trade sex for employment and advancement. Of course, the number of men who harass women is much fewer than the number of women harassed; one predator has many victims. The #MeToo movement has so far focused on some of the worst forms of sexual predation, which certainly deserve attention and justice. However, to understand women's persistent inequality – not only harassment per se, it is time to address the many men who have not harassed women but have also not acknowledged their contributions, not mentored them, not promoted them, all the while grooming one man after another to take his rightful place for succession and success in the workforce.
As disabling as they can be, sexual harassment or assault are not the only – or even the largest – source of gender subordination in most work environments. Women's occupational inequality is driven by far subtler processes that happen every day, like being ignored or having contributions overlooked or appropriated, or being assigned to lower status roles while men are pushed ahead, honored and celebrated, often on the basis of women's work.
Women's subordination is a consequence of their invisibility other than as sexual objects. That is why it is time to address what we might call "the elephant in the room."
Everyday Sexism and Subordination
As demeaning and frightening as assault and sexual harassment are, inattention and disrespect are pernicious too. They are effective in systematically denying women their rightful opportunities at work and in society, desired expertise, and legitimate positions of professional authority. For example, a recent obituary (New York Times, December 31, 2017) for Stanford neuroscientist Ben Barres (MIT ’76) quotes him as saying that "people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man." Yet often women who have achieved exceptional status and position cannot expect the same. This is true even in the most elite and august professional arenas. Although energetic give-and-take debate characterizes oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, these historic engagements have become a showplace of habituated gender discrimination. "When Sandra Day O'Connor was the one woman on the court, 35.7% of the interruptions were directed at her; in 2002, 45.3% were directed at O'Connor and Ginsburg. In 2015, 65.9% of all interruptions on the court were directed at the three female justices. With more women on the court," write Jacobi and Schweers, authors of a study of oral argument, "the situation only seems to be getting worse."
Closer to home, the situation is no better and perhaps worse because technology companies – the ambition of most of our students' post-graduate employment plans – are notoriously inhospitable to women. A 2015 survey of 200 senior-level women in Silicon Valley, "The Elephant in the Valley," reported that 47% have been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food, etc.); 66% say they've been excluded from social or networking opportunities because of gender; 88% have had clients or colleagues address questions to male peers rather than to them; 87% have been on the receiving end of demeaning comments from male colleagues; 75% say they were asked about marriage and family plans during job interviews. Ninety percent say that they have witnessed sexist behavior at company gatherings offsite and at industry conferences, and 84% have been told that they are too aggressive (with half hearing that on multiple occasions).
Although these well-educated, highly skilled tech professionals reported being the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior, the everyday activities of their male colleagues were the more significant barrier to their enjoying satisfying work and rewarding careers. Business conferences conducted at golfing and fishing weekends, pick-up basketball games after work, and long nights drinking in bars that employ scantily-clad dancers and sex workers may not be consciously designed to demean or exclude women – but they do. This extra-curricular fun among colleagues effectively marginalizes women, limiting their ability to develop professional networks, cultivate shared organizational or professional identity, and build friendships helpful for strong working relationships. While most men are not harassers, ordinary male-bonding and socialization rituals reinforce structures that reproduce degradation and subordination of women.
In 2015, President Reif appointed a Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, charged with overseeing the Institute's policies and practices for preventing and responding to sexual misconduct and other forms of gender-based discrimination. For the last two years, the Committee has been updating MIT Policies and Procedures on sexual misconduct, shaping a policy on consensual sexual relationships, and guiding the initiation of mandatory sexual misconduct prevention training (see article by David Singer in this issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter). This is important work. However, gender problems in the academy, as elsewhere, extend beyond blatant sexual assault and harassment.
Gender Stratification in Engineering Education
For more than a decade, I have been collaborating on a study of the education and careers of engineers. This was originally begun as an effort to see whether innovations in engineering education would produce a different kind of engineer as designers of the programs hoped (at Olin College of Engineering and Picker Engineering Program at Smith College). We followed a cohort of students (from these schools plus UMass and MIT) through college and into the workplace. In answer to the original research question, we found no significant variations in the career aspirations, political and social commitments, and post-college experiences across the four schools. Despite the innovative educational models and consistent with national data, women in our panel were twice as likely as men (in the three co-ed institutions) to switch out of engineering to other STEM majors. But men who switched out of engineering were more likely than women to switch to non-STEM majors. In other words, the women wanted to stay in STEM, but not engineering. We also found that upon graduation, women who did stay in engineering earned on average $17,000 less per year than did their male peers. And yet when women transferred out of engineering, they were paid a significantly higher salary (another approximately $17,000) than the men who transferred out of engineering. In other words, there was little incentive for women to remain in engineering since high technology workplaces requiring engineering degrees valued women less than men.
Using interviews, diaries, and surveys, we tried to identify the taken-for-granted, often unnoticed and unintended practices that drove these high-achieving women away from engineering. (It should be noted that women entered college with preparation and SAT scores comparable to male students and often left with a higher average GPA.) Contemporary media accounts relentlessly describe toxic workplaces in Silicon Valley (and in finance). Interestingly, women engineering students do not describe their engineering education in similarly harsh terms. They offer narratives of generally supportive faculty and welcoming environments. Nonetheless, they also describe being sidelined on team projects, relegated to managerial rather than technical roles, and in the process being denied the same opportunities as male students to hone and sharpen their classroom learning through hands-on skills. Women become the coordinators and spokespersons for the teams, collecting materials, scheduling meetings, and sometimes becoming the team’s public face; however, they also fear they are doing the "housework" for colleagues because they presumably lack comparable technical skills.
When women students move from classroom to engineering internships, they report similar and sometimes more blatant exclusion. While internships and summer jobs provide students additional opportunities beyond class projects to "try on" the role of engineer, these worksites echoed the gender stereotyping experienced in school projects: men were assigned interesting problem-solving tasks where they could develop their analytic and technical skills, while women were more often assigned social and organizational tasks that did not value or grow their engineering skills. Almost without exception, men reported the internships and summer jobs as a positive experience, often the highlight of their education. Women's reports were just not as uniformly positive as were the men's. Some women spoke highly of their internships, but many thought that they were not given equal opportunities. As a consequence, fewer women than men report being confident that engineering can be a satisfying lifelong occupation.
Ideological Support for Inequality / Believing in Objective Merit
Differential experiences in projects and internships do not prevent the majority of female engineering majors from completing the course. While providing clear and strong criticisms of their experiences, they rarely recognize structural inequities or translate their experiences and their own marginality into a commentary on the engineering profession itself. Instead, perhaps admirably, they recommit themselves to finding a place in the profession. They explicitly reject feminist or institutional interpretations, often ending a story about differential treatment with the coda: "But I'm Not a Feminist." To most of the women we studied, feminism is a voice of complaint, asking for special treatment through affirmative action. They see feminism as an expression of partiality for women and so they reject it because it suggests that their own talent and experience could not meet objective standards of merit and individual achievement. They told us that they do and will succeed because they are better than those who complain and because engineering's objective standards of performance will reward their greater talent and effort. These accounts help to show how sex discrimination and the ideology of meritocracy work together to reproduce structural inequality on the basis of gender.
Is it possible that engineering education not only prepares future engineers with the technical skills required in high tech workplaces, but through its socialization processes also prepares women students to anticipate, and male students to reproduce, gender bias? Are we preparing the student or are we producing the tech workplace?
Minimally, a culture of engineering education that valorizes technical prowess while denigrating social skills has significant consequences for the culture of the technological workplace, as well as for occupational sex segregation.
Sexism in Economics
We could take this observation to another field. Like engineers, economists claim to be "very objective in their view of the world," despite empirical data to the contrary. Just as undergraduate female engineers are confident that the engineering professions’ merit criteria are objective, so too economists cling to the notion that they operate with objective tools and judgment. And yet, the recent outpouring of research on differential treatment of women in economics provides abundant evidence of systematic bias and examples of outright misogyny. Women's subordination in economics cannot be fully explained by hostile work environments, quid pro quo sexual harassment or women's ability and effort. The most common modes of gender subordination come from the more everyday activities of simply ignoring women’s contributions, unconsciously preferring the company of men, and not acting when harassment is observed. "I don't think it's because we don't know what is implicit bias. We know," said Rhonda Sharpe, the President of the National Economics Association. "It's whether we stand up and call it out, and usually we don't." [reference]
The evidence has begun to circulate widely. Heather Sarsons found that men are tenured at roughly the same rate regardless of whether they coauthor or solo-author. Women, however, become less likely to receive tenure the more they coauthor. Erin Hengel found that papers written by female economists scored up to 6% higher on readability tests than those of men, but that they languish in peer review a half-year longer than those of men – independent of the outcome of the review. Economists report the same pattern of interruptions when women are speaking as is observed for STEM scholars and Supreme Court justices. Alice Wu documented outright hostility and misogyny in parts of the economics profession by analyzing posts in a job market rumor forum. From over one million anonymous posts exchanging information about who is hiring and being hired in the profession, she showed that the 25 most often used words associated with the female pronoun were not about economics or research skills. In order of frequency, they were: "hotter, lesbian, bb (Internet for baby), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated, and prostitute." The parallel list of words associated with discussions about men reveals no similarly singular or hostile theme. It includes words that are relevant to economics, such as "advisor, Austrian (a school of thought in economics), mathematician, pricing, textbook, Wharton" as well as more general terms reflecting dominance such as "goals, greatest, Nobel, bully, burning, fought."
We disregard anonymous Internet postings at our peril, even as it protects those who wish to hide behind its affordance of anonymity. This is speech spoken freely and without consequence, believing it spoken to like-minded Internet travelers. We may think this "cesspool of misogyny" (so described by David Romer, a Berkeley economist) is too far removed from our lives at work and with our students. But it is the underground foundation for the visible structures of merit and fairness we aim to establish and sustain in our own institution. Whether the aggregate effects of anonymous posting on the Internet outweigh the consequences of a system of action without accountability is a discussion worth having by itself, perhaps for another time.
Aspiring to Meritocracy
I frequently explain that MIT is one of the most meritocratic institutions of higher education. I am proud and delighted to be able to say this. Students are admitted on the basis of their own record, without preference for family or social connections, or reward for past or future philanthropic donations. Of the most competitive and highly ranked institutions, MIT has the lowest percent of our student body coming from the highest income strata, among the lowest median family income, and until recently the largest percent coming from the bottom half of the income distribution. On issues of admissions, we show no signs of income, race, and gender discrimination. Salaries are regularly scrutinized for indicators of similar discrimination.
Nonetheless, when we look inside the work we do here – both in teaching our students and working with faculty and staff – the story is not the same. Perhaps it is time to push the inquiries and efforts deeper into the ideological justifications that mask misogyny.
Indeed, recent scholarship has underscored the persistent role of belief in "universalistic (or meritocratic) criteria" among "high status," and science-based occupations [Xie, Fang, & Shauman, 2015, p. 333] where gender discrimination persists at high rates. Eliminating male predation will certainly make many women's lives better. But alone it will not make a level playing field. To understand persistent subordination and inequality, we must attend to the habitual routines of our scholarly endeavors – after work gatherings, weekend socializing, task assignments, habits of interruption, biases in peer review and against co-authorship – all of which are established initially by male norms and framed by what is comfortable for men. The ugly Internet speech reveals what we can find if we dig deep, but we need only study and assess the routine activities of our work to understand how our systems of measuring merit do anything but. We achieve true equality not when the first woman Einstein is named and celebrated, but when normally competent – no less especially accomplished – women are treated the same as the most ordinary of men. And please let me be clear: this is not about lowering standards. It is time we rid ourselves of that shibboleth once and for all.
Understanding the #MeToo movement and addressing the systematic subordination of women requires that we understand the structural foundations of professional successes: whoever controls resources and sets the rules of the game will come out ahead. Until now, women have been systematically excluded from both.