Eighteen years ago, economist Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University and former secretary of the treasury, rose to speak at a conference on women and science at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge. Summers began by sharing his hopes of provoking the audience. Those hopes were quickly realized when he offered his view that “innate” differences might underlie what he described as the “very substantial disparities … with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions.” As supporting evidence, Summers offered this illuminating anecdote: his own twin daughters, age 2½, “were not given dolls [but] trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck.” This method of play, said Summers, “tells me something.” What it told him, apparently, is that women are born with “intrinsic aptitudes” that may preclude all but a tiny minority from achieving at the highest level in any discipline of science and engineering.
Biologist Nancy Hopkins happened to be sitting in the audience that chilly January afternoon. Among her many notable achievements, Hopkins had spearheaded the by then well-documented drive for gender parity at MIT, her employer. At the phrase “intrinsic aptitude,” she abruptly pushed back her chair and rose from her seat. She then departed the venue, making special note of Summers’s chauffeur-driven town car idling lazily at the curb. Returning to her office, she responded to an e-mail from a reporter at this newspaper: “Just walked out on Larry Summers. I’m still shaking.”
Hopkins wasn’t the only one shaking. Women and their advocates nationwide heard Summers’s comments precisely as he meant them to be heard — that is, that gender is to some degree destiny, and that if one’s gender happens to be female, one may well be destined for less. Summers went on to imply that achievement at the highest levels in science requires fierce attention applied not only during an “80-hour work week,” but in every waking moment. To his understanding, very few women are thus inclined, particularly women who (like his former and current wife) choose to produce and raise offspring. (He sidestepped the obvious question of how many scientist fathers are so inclined.)
Fast forward to the future: May 1, 2023, and the inauguration of biologist Sally Kornbluth, MIT’s 18th president. Joining her on the podium: civil engineer Cynthia Barnhardt, university provost; and astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala, dean of science. Under Summers’s logic, these women are “exceptions,” essentially freaks of nature endowed with both extraordinary intellect and two X chromosomes. Similar “exceptions” provide both the title and the narrative of Kate Zernike’s account of the efforts of Nancy Hopkins and her team to challenge the male-dominant culture at MIT in the early 1990s.
Hopkins entered Radcliffe College as a freshman in 1960, when the Harvard tenured faculty included 295 men and two women. (Harvard was no outlier: At the time women comprised 4 percent of full professors of science at the nation’s 20 top research institutions.) Still, Hopkins had no complaints, and found a place in the laboratory of Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA (for which he would later share the Nobel Prize). Zernike writes that Watson’s lab “opened up a world [Hopkins] had not known existed, much less thought she might inhabit.” She went on to graduate work at Yale, and then returned to Harvard to work with biologist Mark Ptashne helping him unlock the secrets of repressor molecules, the “master switch” underlying the regulation of gene expression.
Hopkins was indeed an “exception,” for if anything, most women in science at the time were losing ground. In 1964, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim cautioned: “We must start with the realization that as much as women want to be good scientists and engineers, women want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men, and to be mothers.” It was common wisdom that women scientists were “rare but not exquisite; more abnormal … probably unfeminine and unfriendly, definitely not much fun.” While working at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Hopkins met one such rare bird: Barbara McClintock, who in 1983 would win the Nobel Prize for the discovery of genetic transposition. McClintock warned Hopkins that men would steal her ideas and her thunder. But Hopkins brushed her off, reasoning that the older scientist’s experience did not and would not apply to her.
In 1970, historian Patricia Albjerg Graham wrote of a “more subtle, less easily countered” discrimination, whereby “Women’s low expectations for themselves so infect society that both men and women refuse to think of women as generally likely to occupy important posts.” Eventually, Hopkins came to experience this in not-so-subtle ways and became determined to do something about it. She’d joined the MIT faculty in 1973, the only female professor in the university’s newly endowed cancer center, founded by Nobel laureate Salvador Luria and dominated by soon-to-be Nobel laureate biologist David Baltimore.
Understandably, it was a rabidly competitive place. Hopkins discovered that she and other prominent female faculty were not only paid far less than the men but had substantially less laboratory equipment and space. Zernike writes: “She felt like a fool, duped. ... It had taken her twenty years to see it ... [and] now that she did, it was as obvious as the clearest scientific result.”
Hopkins and her colleagues — 16 women who at the time constituted the tenured women faculty of the School of Science — brought evidence of the problem to Dean of Science Bob Birgeneau, who immediately appointed a committee of one tenured woman from each department in his college (excluding math, which had no tenured females) and three men. After two years of amassing data on salaries, lab space, teaching assignments, and other variables, the committee unearthed evidence of wholesale gender discrimination to which MIT publicly confessed, a “seismic” event that sparked institutions across the nation to confront their own inequities.
Zernike relies heavily on Hopkins’s notes, diaries, and memories in this account, and it shows. One longs to hear the responses from her alleged detractors (not all of them scientists). Some of the history — of MIT, Cambridge, Cold Spring Harbor, and the potted bios of one scientist after another — seems belabored and obligatory, and some of the science feels unpacked. (An example: “under certain stimuli those chromosomes developed regions with high gene transcription, known as puffs.”) Nor is the book without missteps: for example, the claim that MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson “developed the thought experiment known as the trolley problem.” (Technically, that distinction belongs to British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot.)
None of this, though, detracts from the book’s central message: the power to effect institutional change through the judicious application of reason. That alone is reason enough to read this hopeful, uplifting account.
THE EXCEPTIONS: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science
By Kate Zernike
Scribner, 416 pp., $30
Ellen Ruppel Shell, professor emeritus of science journalism at Boston University, is the author of four books, and is working on a fifth — a narrative consideration of the American eel.
This story has been updated to correct a misspelling in the last name of MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson.