For those who thought “Lessons in Chemistry” was fiction, a memoir

‘The Exceptions’ Review: Nancy Hopkins’s Fight for Equality

The MIT molecular biologist realized that male colleagues were given special treatment. She decided to take action.


Nancy Hopkins with colleagues in 1974.PHOTO: MIT MUSEUM

By Diane Cole

Feb. 24, 2023 11:33 am ET

When the molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins joined the faculty of MIT in 1973, it was not yet a universally accepted truth that women scientists needed labs of their own to pursue their research. It was still the early days of affirmative action, and Ms. Hopkins’s appointment to the prestigious institution, based on her pioneering experiments identifying and mapping cancer-virus genes, seemed to speak to the progress that women in science were making against job discrimination. Surely the slew of recently passed civil-rights laws would make it impossible for her to receive a rejection letter like the one given to Barbara McClintock, the future Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, stating that, while she was the best in her field, it was impossible to hire her because she was a woman.

And yet, as Kate Zernike reports in her absorbing chronicle, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science,” Ms. Hopkins continued to endure more professional slights than she cared—or dared—to admit. “Deliverymen asked her to sign for packages, assuming she was a secretary,” Ms. Zernike writes, while the secretary she shared with a male colleague “did his work first, and Nancy’s only if she had time.” She even found herself “waiting to use a microscope she had paid for with her own grant.”

How had it happened, she asked herself, that even as she had become increasingly well known outside of MIT, she seemed to be invisible—irrelevant—within her own department?

Ms. Hopkins, the author tells us, had always believed that science was a meritocracy, where all that mattered was pursuing experiments and getting results. And that was the path she had followed, devoting her life to science, routinely spending 80-hour weeks at the lab at the cost of her marriage. In the process, she quipped, she had become “a nun of science.” Her scientific achievements—which Ms. Zernike presents in straightforward language that nonscientists can easily understand—were more than impressive.

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

By Kate Zernike

Scribner, 432 pages

Ms. Hopkins was puzzled by her predicament. She may have been among the few female “exceptions” among the vast majority of male scientists at MIT, but she stuck to her belief that they shared a loyalty to the results-oriented world of science—a realm in which bias or chauvinism should be absent. Which meant that the fault must be her own, she concluded. She blamed herself: for not being competitive enough, or tough enough, for being nice rather than aggressive, for taking time off to mourn for her mother and recover from her divorce. Better to view the individual snubs not as a pattern but in isolation, as too trivial to protest. Besides, she rationalized, complaining only risked her being branded as whiny, angry, a nag—the demeaning terms her male colleagues typically used to describe female scientists—and that would further mark her as an outsider.

Then, starting in 1992, Ms. Hopkins found herself embroiled in a struggle for additional lab space and equipment. Her latest experiments were yielding both excellent results and large research grants, and by Ms. Hopkins’s reckoning those facts alone made her case. But the head of her department stalled. He turned a blind eye when one male colleague began aggressively crowding her out of the little space she had, piling and storing his equipment and packages outside the entrance to her lab, creating an obstacle course so hazardous that she fell and hurt her back. Adding insult to actual injury, the standoff with her department head continued. After he denied that a disparity in lab sizes existed, she asked to see the data behind his assertion. He promised to send them to her—but never delivered.

That is how Ms. Hopkins found herself sneaking into the darkened biology labs late one night, armed with a tape measure, to stealthily record the dimensions and calculate the space of each lab. “They’ll think I’m crazy,” she thought as she crouched down on her hands and knees. But her data did not lie: “Even a junior faculty member—a man—had almost double the space she did,” Ms. Zernike writes, and her department head, also male, “had four times as much.” Hers was the smallest space of all, a public manifestation of how little her male colleagues valued her.

She was crushed. “She felt like a fool, duped,” Ms. Zernike tells us. It had taken her almost 20 years, but now Ms. Hopkins saw it “as obvious as the clearest scientific result” that “a woman’s work would never be valued as highly as a man’s.” It was time, she realized, to consult a lawyer about discrimination.

She soon discovered the “disturbing fact” that only “about 15%” of the faculty in her department were women, a percentage that hadn’t changed in the 21 years she had been at MIT. There was also little evidence that it would change soon, to judge by a conversation Ms. Hopkins had heard, Ms. Zernike reports, in which faculty members “dismissed a résumé from a woman because she was too old, then agreed to consider the résumé of a man who was two years older.”

As she began sharing her experiences with her female colleagues, Ms. Hopkins learned that they, too, had been snubbed, shut out from making decisions, denied resources and teaching opportunities, and earned salaries sometimes 40% less than those of their male colleagues. And they, too, had blamed themselves, questioned their abilities and kept their humiliations to themselves for fear of backlash.

Galvanized, Ms. Hopkins and her female colleagues brought their concerns to the administration. That led to the formation of a Committee on Women Faculty to investigate gender inequalities, with Ms. Hopkins as its head. The committee’s report, issued in 1999, confirmed the presence and range of discrimination and was endorsed by Charles M. Vest, MIT’s president at the time, who wrote: “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.” It was an admission that resulted in MIT becoming “the pacesetter for promoting gender equality in higher education,” the author writes, and launched efforts to address the inequities in universities across the country.

Ms. Zernike, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, originally broke the MIT story when she was a reporter at the Boston Globe. Since then, the situation has improved, but bias persists. In 2005, at a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, Lawrence Summers, then Harvard’s president, asserted that the reason behind the dearth of women in top science positions was “issues of intrinsic aptitude.” Ms. Hopkins, who was in the audience, walked out.

More recently, Ms. Zernike writes, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported in 2018 that “50 percent of female faculty members had experienced sexual harassment, and that the biggest complaint was not ‘sexual coercion’ but put-downs about their intelligence, exclusion, and the kind of marginalization that the women of MIT had described twenty years earlier.”

The obstacles to women’s equality in science have not disappeared. But we have Nancy Hopkins and the other intrepid “exceptions” to thank for razing so many hurdles—and providing the inspiration to continue on.

Ms. Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

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