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MIT professor talks about how she exposed sexism in academia

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Nearly 24 years ago Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist and MIT professor, alerted her colleagues and supervisors about sexism she says she experienced on campus.

Her letter and the ensuing movement were highlighted in a Boston Globe article by Kate Zernike and later revealed similar hostile work environments on campuses across the country.

ABC News’ Linsey Davis spoke to Hopkins and Zernike about Zernike’s new book, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science,” which chronicles the issue.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Nancy, I’d like to start with you. You’ve obviously made great strides in your cancer research. You were looking at the world of science like a meritocracy, right? And then there was a certain point where you realized the sexual harassment, the assault was not necessarily just an exception for you, but more like the rule. At what point did you realize that it was a pattern for not just you, but many of your female colleagues?

NANCY HOPKINS: I took about 20 years. I was so certain that if you did a good enough experiment, none of it would matter. So I saw it from the beginning, but I didn’t know what it was. And I just thought, ‘Well, it’s just some obstacle. I did something wrong. Maybe I ran into a difficult person. I’ll just keep going. Keep going.’ And it really took a while. So after a while, I said, ‘Well, wait a minute.’

You know, this is really a little too difficult. And some of the things are sort of obvious that have to do with being a woman. But I didn’t think they mattered. But there were some I just didn’t know. And so I started looking at how other women were treated. And that was what opened my eyes to it. I said, “Wait a minute, that woman is just as good as that man. How come he’s the genius and she’s sort of invisible?” I mean, this doesn’t make sense, really. And I had to see enough examples so that I really finding it was true and there weren’t many women, so it took a long time. But the interesting thing was that even when I saw it was really all those other women, I still was able to convince myself that it wasn’t happening to me and that my problems were some individual problem or whatever. I done something wrong [it was] somebody else, something very hard to face [or] the fact that this was happening to you.

ABC NEWS LIVE: I’m curious if I can play devil’s advocate here for a moment. At what point, because you said that yourself initially you thought, ‘well, maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s just an issue that I’m having.’ At what point did you decide and really you were clear that it was about your gender and not you personally?

HOPKINS: Well, I think it took about 15 years to realize it was all other women except me. And then it made this big switch. And then I realized, yes, OK, it’s happening to me, but I can still overcome this if I can just get through this one difficult problem.

And then there was the last straw moment when I just realized I couldn’t continue to actually work that way. I’d run out of energy to fight these battles.

ABC NEWS LIVE: At what point did you realize? Was it kind of like a call, knock at a door when you went to a female colleague and said, are you having these struggles? Like how did that all transpire?

HOPKINS: I just had all local administrators and I wrote a letter to the president of MIT. I said, “Dear sir, I’m sure you’re a well-meaning person, but I see you’re discriminating against all the women faculty here, and I think you ought to do something about it.”

And so I really looked up to this woman, but I thought she’ll think I’m a loser and a wimp, but I’m going to show her the letter anyway and just see whether it’s dignified and the president might even read it. So we go out to lunch and we’re sitting at this tiny little table, and I’m watching her and she’s reading so slow. So slow. And I’m waiting for to say, “oh, that Hopkins woman, she’s no good.”

She puts it down on the table and she says, “I’d like to sign this letter. And I think we should go see the president because I believe this for a long time.”

ABC NEWS LIVE: That’s great.

HOPKINS: And that changed my life. It changed MIT. And we looked at each other and we said, “I suppose it could be others who feel the same way. Do you?” Well, guess what? They were.

ABC NEWS LIVE: How did you first hear about Nancy’s story?

KATE ZERNIKE: So I was a reporter at the Boston Globe and I just got a very generic tip. I still to this day can’t remember where it came, through several people. Call this woman Nancy Hopkins, there’s something about discrimination and women at MIT. And I thought, OK, it’s 1999. It’s probably a lawsuit or something. How bad could it be, right? 1999, we’re on the verge of a new century. So I called Nancy and she said that they had produced this report about discrimination. But what really got me was that MIT was going to acknowledge that it had discriminated.

And the reason they had done this is because the women had been so careful to gather data, to gather stories, to make their case. And the president at MIT said this is a real problem.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Were you all expecting the headlines and the shockwaves when you first revealed this?

ZERNIKE: No, I thought it was a great story because, as I said, MIT was admitting this. I loved the way these women had gone about this scientifically. It just struck me as this very meaty story, and I was really impressed by them. But I didn’t think like it showed up on the front page. So I did a story for the Boston Globe, which shows up on the front page. I didn’t think it was going to show up on the front page in The New York Times two days later.

HOPKINS: I thought, OK, but it’s just these kind of places like Harvard and MIT, which think they’re so great, and that’s it. But it didn’t occur to me, actually, that it was true everywhere. I mean, this is, how naive can you be? I’m sort of embarrassed to say it, but I have to be honest here. So then when Kate’s article came out, this deluge happened. I mean, it was just overwhelming. And women were writing from all over the country and the world and saying, thank you. Thank you for telling the story. It’s my story.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And this was back in 1999. Why did you decide now was the time? We’re talking more than two decades later for a book to really expand on this.

ZERNIKE: So I was, in 2018, I was watching the fallout from the MeToo movement. And I thought, OK, it’s great that we are understanding now that this egregious sexual assault can happen. That’s great. That’s obviously a huge revolution, but it struck me that this marginalization, that the women at MIT had talked about in some ways was a more pervasive problem and a more stubborn problem because it is so hard to see. And so I thought if I could tell this really intimate story about what happened to Nancy and these women, people would begin to understand the problem and do something about it.

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