Sunday Science: How Nancy Hopkins and Her Tape Measure Revealed the Extent of Sexism in Science
Nancy Hopkins’s professional career has been partly defined by the ‘great men of biology’ she has worked with. Hopkins, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recounts being mentored by James Watson, yelled at by Eric Lander, slighted by David Baltimore and groped by Francis Crick. But her actual legacy rests in her scientific achievements in cancer biology and zebrafish genetics — and in the attention she drew to discrimination against women in science.
One night in 1993, seething at the fact that her male colleagues routinely took up more than their fair share of laboratory space, Hopkins got out a tape and measured the dimensions of each lab, office and equipment room in her building to quantify the differences between the spaces granted to women and men. Her work led to a seminal 1999 report from MIT in which the university admitted to having discriminated against female members of its science faculty for decades. That led to a nationwide reckoning about how institutions of higher education routinely held back women in science.
In The Exceptions, journalist Kate Zernike details Hopkins’s journey from a young student convinced that academia was a meritocracy to a seasoned faculty member who saw that the opposite was true. Zernike’s account details more than just the journey of one scientist — it provides a deeply researched dive into the history of gender discrimination in US higher education. The ‘exceptions’ of her title are the exceptional women who pushed through discrimination in science to have accomplished careers, as Hopkins did. Even though the main events transpired decades ago, they remain remarkably relevant today given the sexism, racism and other injustices that still permeate academia.
MIT was perhaps an unlikely place for this reckoning to unfold. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw from the elite bastion of Harvard University, MIT was supposed to be a meritocracy by contrast, a place where proficiency in engineering and science levelled the playing field of privilege. MIT’s first female student graduated in 1873, a century before Harvard fully deigned to admit women.
But the few women who actually enrolled at MIT faced an uphill battle. Campus housing was nonexistent at first; a women’s dormitory was added in the 1960s, but it was still insufficient. Women were sidelined, propositioned and assaulted as they tried to work and study. As late as 1985, three years before I entered MIT as an undergraduate, the university showed pornographic films in large auditoriums as a start-of-semester tradition.
After finishing her postdoctoral studies with Watson and Robert Pollack at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Laurel Hollow, New York, Hopkins arrived at MIT in 1973 as only the second woman ever on the faculty in the biology department. She was going against the advice of Nobel laureate geneticist Barbara McClintock, who warned her not to take any university job because of the likelihood of discrimination. She had already made important discoveries in cell and cancer biology, and was about to pioneer work on the role of retroviruses in cancer. Yet she was still frequently told that by working in science she would be taking a job from a more deserving man, and that she could not teach genetics to undergraduates because they would not trust scientific information coming from a woman.
Hopkins’s previously unpublished notes from this time reveal a searing picture of injustice. She is deliberately demoted on a priority list for tenure despite her formidable application; excluded from the profits of a biology course that she co-developed; and sexually assaulted by a colleague. After two decades at MIT, she finally realizes that science is not an unblemished search for the truth but rather a scrum of salesmanship full of competition, greed and harassment in which men have the upper hand. It all culminates, in Zernike’s narrative, in Hopkins’s infamous tape measurement.
This might have remained just one dramatic late-night episode, were it not for Hopkins joining forces with 15 other women on the MIT science faculty to bring the discrimination to light. They went to the science dean and, with his encouragement, produced the 1999 report on the status of women at MIT. The university released the study, which concluded that the discrimination had persisted across generations of female faculty members. Within days, Hopkins was giving media interviews around the world.
Zernike covered that story as a reporter at the Boston Globe. She now illuminates its backstory, placing the MIT experience in the history of US higher education, from how universities struggled to cope with the feminist revolution of the 1960s to the Title IX law of 1972 that banned discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded institutions.
It is a single story acutely told, with a historical context that enriches and deepens its narrative. Zernike does not, however, address gender discrimination at other institutions or include context from academia outside the United States. Issues of intersectionality, in which gender, race and other factors combine to amplify discrimination, are explored, but not at length.
So why tell Hopkins’s story now? The tape measure is now in the MIT museum, but that doesn’t mean things have changed. A study released in January by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, found that its female scientists have, on average, just half as much research space allotted to them as their male counterparts. Thirty years after Hopkins’s measurements, discrimination in academia remains alive and well.
Nature 615, 787-788 (2023)
Alexandra Witze, based in Boulder, Colorado, covers the earth and planetary sciences for Nature, the leading international journal of science. Co-author of ISLAND ON FIRE, a book about the extraordinary 1783 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki (Pegasus Books, 2015). For recent clips, see www.alexandrawitze.com or follow me on Twitter: @alexwitze.