Kate Zernike on Women in STEM at Library

Sharetha Dantes, Senior IT Business Analyst with the Library (left), moderated the discussion with Kate Zernike, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (right) on bias within the science community. // Photo by Rahul Deshpande Student Publications

On March 29, Tech hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and national correspondent for the New York Times Kate Zernike in an event featuring a moderated discussion and Q&A session. The event was followed by refreshments and an unmoderated community conversation to encourage event attendees to discuss the current status of women in STEM fields.

Zernike’s stop at Tech is also part of her tour promoting her new book titled “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.”

Zernike’s book is an account of the stories of the 16 female scientists who forced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to publicly admit it had been discriminating against its female faculty for years. Zernike broke the original story for the Boston Globe in 1999, sparking a national discussion over sexism in science.

The event was held by the Tech Library with sponsorship from Equity and Compliance Programs. It was open to students, staff and faculty. Tickets were free, but attendees were required to RSVP in advance.

Approximately 40 individuals attended the event, including Scheller Dean Maryam Alavi, the Title IX Coordinator Chris Griffin and more.

The event began with an introduction by Aisha Johnson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Outreach at the Tech Library. She praised the work Tech has done in increasing equity but expressed that there is more to be done. 

“While Georgia Tech has made great strides towards equity and equality, we’re still not there. We still have work to do,” she said.

Johnson highlighted the role of the Library in having these necessary conversations. 

“We indeed are what I consider the heart of the schoolhouse, the soul of the institution, so why not lead the way and have the platform for such conversations? Since we serve everyone, conversations based on equality and fairness also belong here in the library.”

Zernike agreed, noting that her personal connection to Tech is the Library’s University Archivist, Alex McGee. She was an archivist at MIT, leading the Women@MIT project before coming to Tech in 2022. 

“When I started researching this book, I was meeting with the MIT archives, and Alex McGee, who is the archivist here now, is the one who helped me,” Zernike said.

The moderator of the event, Sharetha Dantes, Senior IT Business Analyst with the Library, took over after Johnson’s introduction. Dantes asked for a synopsis of Zernike’s book and asked for an explanation of the title and specifically, why she called it “The Exceptions.”

“The book starts with Nancy [Hopkins] in 1963, when she’s a junior at Radcliffe, but a decade later, in 1973, she becomes one of the first women to be hired and it’s the dawn of affirmative action,” Zernike said. “And so we have several of these women who are hired during that time.”

Zernike’s book tells the stories of these 16 women in detail.

“These women had gotten together and gathered data to prove their case,” Zernike said. “They were looking at how many and what percentage of grants women got, what percentage of their salaries a woman versus a man had to pay out of their federal grants and how much came from MIT and how much lab space they got.”

Zernike said it was not just about the lab space and pay gap,  but “it was also, a new phrase at the time, unconscious bias.”

Zernike also explained that the title came about “when I was going back through archives and reading histories of women, I kept stumbling over the word ‘except.’ Like, ‘oh, she’s exceptional’ or ‘she’s the exception,’” she said. “And so we gradually came around to the idea.”

Zernike also answered questions about the power of data in telling the stories of women, the intersections of race and gender, Tech’s progress in equalizing the number of female and male tenure-track faculty and practical ways institutions of higher education can support female faculty.

“The usual excuse or the reason why there’s no women in academia or math or science is because they work really long hours, and they can’t work long hours because of children,” Zernike said. “But when this report goes viral, it gets the field’s attention. MIT … went to the junior faculty and the women and they all said daycare. … They made it normal for people to take maternity leave.”

Zernike also answered questions from the audience about various aspects of being a “woman in STEM,” like how to deal with the assumption of being a diversity hire and how initiatives directed at women can be inclusive of transgender people and experiences. 

“It’s not that you’re dropping quality for women but rather it’s that you’re raising the standard for men,” she said. Afterwards, attendees were invited to discuss their personal experiences with discrimination in STEM in community conversations. Zernike also participated and signed copies of her book.