Kate Zernike on her book ‘The Exceptions,’ gender rights in STEM

On the shelf

The exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and The Fight for Women in Science

By Kate Zernike
Writer: 432 pages, $30

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In 1999, MIT made the shocking admission that the university had discriminated against its women scientists … and promised to do better. The 16 women were delighted to challenge the status quo, especially Nancy Hopkins, the reluctant de facto leader, but were eager to return to their roles as top scientists.

They mostly moved on. So the Boston Globe reporter who broke the story, Kate Zernike, traded her higher education beat for a national correspondent role at the New York Times. But nearly two decades later, the #MeToo movement forced her to revisit the moment for a new book, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.”

“In 2018, I was thinking, it’s great that people now think that executives can’t take off their bathing suits in front of junior employees, but it bothered me that the bias and sexism shown by the women at MIT is still much more widespread. problem,” Zernike said recently on video while on a family vacation in Utah.

In her coverage of politics, she has repeatedly seen men’s success attributed to “genius” while women get grudging credit for “grinding away”.

“We don’t take women as seriously intellectually or professionally, so this story highlights that and reminds us of how we view people.”

The issue became personal when Zernike had children. While male colleagues were plastering cubes with their children’s art, she wasn’t because she didn’t want to be seen as a mom first. It didn’t help. The men at the paper threw comments like “I was told you couldn’t travel” or “I figured you wouldn’t want that job anyway.”

“People joke about the workplace training we have to do but unconscious bias is real and so subtle,” she says. “While talking to women in different fields, I realized that we are not as far as I expected. It struck me that Nancy’s story could be instructive to people.”

Zernike chronicles Hopkins’ entire journey—from uncertain undergraduate in 1963 to determined postdoc to innovative cancer researcher and distinguished professor. “It was really important to Nancy that I show her passion for science and show her doing science,” says Zernike. “She came into this role as a women’s advocate. It wasn’t something she asked for.”

A woman with brown hair sitting at a round white table.

Kate Zernicke returned to the story of MIT women scientists who made changes in ‘The Exceptions.’

(Harry Zernike)

Still, it’s the obstacles that make up the story – a famous scientist grabbing her breast, male colleagues trying to appropriate her work, lower pay, less grant money and less lab space for her and her other women. Hopkins secretly measured every room in the building where she worked to prove that her male superiors were lying about the space imbalance.

Working alone or with men, it was easy to ignore systemic problems, and it was even easier for the scientist to blame herself. “It’s embarrassing so you don’t tell anybody,” Hopkins said during a telephone interview. “It was only when women came together and saw the pattern that it changed.”

Zernike builds her case with the stories of other women, including cytogeneticist and Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock, geneticist Mary-Lou Pardue, nanotechnologist Mildred Dresselhaus, social psychologist Lotte Bailyn and oceanographer Penny Chisholm.

Hopkins says she was initially reluctant when Zernike reached out again; she didn’t want to relive the fight. She had already tried and abandoned the memorial. “But the other women in our group wanted to tell this story in a more complete form,” Hopkins said. “It was painful to go back – I was naive and clueless – but reading it I can understand my own life now. You see the historical context.”

(Perhaps as a sign of how pervasive these biases are, only seven photographs in the book are of women; five are portraits of men or have a man as their focal point. “I didn’t understand doing that,” says Zernike. )

For years, the presence of every woman scientist was considered an exception by men, which emphasized the notion that women were not equal even though they had to work harder, sacrifice more and fight against minorities endlessly.

A book cover with a photo of a room full of people.

“The exceptions” by Nancy Hopkins.


“When the MIT report came out there was this right-wing backlash, saying it was just these women who were complaining. So I wanted the book to be an intimate experience of what it feels like to be marginalized,” says Zernike. “You don’t want to protest every time because you don’t care to cry. But it’s the accumulation of them that makes things so hard.”

Hopkins urged Zernike to interview the men involved and give his version proper space. The response was mixed. The most prominent scientist, Eric Lander, was unrepentant. (Lander was recently forced to resign from President Biden’s cabinet due to allegations of bullying.) In contrast, Harvey Lodish, his partner in ousting Hopkins from a course she created, made some personal calculations.

“He’s said, ‘You should write this book, please don’t stop women from going into science,’” says Zernike. “He can recognize in the larger context what this might be like for her.”

Years after the MIT apology, Lodish partnered with Hopkins to try to bring more women into the field of biotechnology. When Zernike asked what changed for him, he replied, “We all grew up.”

Looking back, Zernike and Hopkins give mixed grades on how much has improved since 1999. “The mistake every generation makes,” warns Zernike, “is to think that the progress they see is the end and therefore not we need to keep talking about this. .”

Hopkins agrees, which is why she sees value in a book that recounts the events years later. “If you don’t keep working at it, things don’t just stop, they can go backwards.”

Both women show less than encouraging statistics — higher attrition rates for women, who still make up less than 25% of the science and engineering workforce.

But they celebrate MIT’s transformation: The university’s president, head of research, chancellor, provost and dean of science are all women, as are five out of eight department heads in the engineering school. Hopkins, who insisted on a Black co-chair when he was named to lead a diversity council after the 1999 report, adds that this list includes a Black woman, an Asian American and immigrants from Turkey and Pakistan – women who obstacles “doubled for him. .”

Just as importantly, the culture is finally changing. While Hopkins and many of her previous generation had children, she notes that women today show up for job interviews pregnant, taking family leave and still getting tenure. And, according to Zernike, the lionization of the “individual genius” in science, often used as a cover for bullying, is gradually giving way to a spirit of collaboration. “As we see more women in leadership roles, we’ll see that model more,” says Zernike.

When asked if men are educable on this front, Zernike laughs and points out that “my children learned by osmosis that women can be geniuses.” While writing “The Exceptions,” Zernike showed her boys “Good Will Hunting,” set at MIT. In the famous scene where Will (Matt Damon) takes a break from his janitorial duties to solve a nearly impossible math problem, Zernike says that her 13-year-old self bursts out, “Wow, Nancy is smart.”

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