Millie's Impact on Women at MIT

Sheila Widnall talks about Millie's impact on MIT women faculty and students and her role in the Women's Forum and "What is Engineering" and other programs and committees.
by Sheila E. Widnall
Feb 14, 2018chevron-down
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Millie's Impact on Women at MIT
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Sheila E. Widnall
Women in Science Session, MIT Memorial

Mildred Dresselhaus arrived at MIT at an important time. MIT was in need of a platform to develop and build opportunities for women students and faculty to pursue successful careers in science and engineering. Millie was crucial in the building of that platform. Its effectiveness catapulted MIT into the foremost international institution for the success of women in science and engineering. I would contend that we retain that position, today.

Millie joined the EECS faculty in 1967 as a visiting professor. At that time, there were two women on the science and engineering faculty of MIT. Emily Wick, the first tenured woman faculty member at MIT, was appointed assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science in 1959 and became an associate professor in 1963. She later became the Dean of Women Students.

I was appointed the first woman faculty member in the school of engineering in 1964. In 1968, Millie and Emily Wick were both appointed full professors, the first women to hold this position at MIT. At that time, there were about 200 undergraduate women out of a total of roughly 4,000 undergraduates. In the school of engineering, there were 28 women undergraduate students and 20 women graduate students.

MIT has been remarkably successful in its support of women students. Women are now about 46% of undergraduates, overall, and 46% of undergraduates in just the school of engineering. No other university has this record of accomplishment. In 1970, MIT allowed coed dormitories, so that housing no longer limited the number of women undergraduate students.

Dean Emily Wick, class of '51, and an ad hoc committee on women's admission recommended that the quota for women's admission be dropped. MIT agreed and admissions became gender blind. The number of women undergraduates rapidly increased. As the change in admissions policy lead to a big increase in women students, Millie and I were worried that women students might not major in the same fields as men, and that these preferences could strain faculty resources.

Working in MIT's engineering school, we inaugurated a freshman seminar, “What is Engineering?” It was aimed at acclimatizing women students to engineering. To make women comfortable with the manual skills that boys traditionally picked up from hobbies or from fathers or from high school shop classes (unavailable to women, at the time), the syllabus included lab projects in electronics, welding, and model building. Weekly classes presented information about careers in engineering, including many presentations from working engineers in the Boston area.

We taught it for about three years — six semesters — as an overload to our regular teaching. It was very popular. We had hoped for 15 students per semester, but we got over 100, half of whom were men. Many MIT women and minority students took the course and quite a few decided to major in engineering.

Millie was deeply committed to the success of women students in engineering. In 1975, she published an article in the IEEE Transactions entitled, "Some Personal Views on Engineering Education for Women." In it, she laid out the challenges for women students and called upon her colleagues to consider what approaches are most effective at providing women students with the best possible training, both in technical areas and an understanding of professionalism in engineering.

Millie further helped organize meetings entitled, "Let's Talk about Your Career," where female students consulted faculty, staff, and guests for advice on graduate school, employment, and the perpetual issue of blending marriage with work. Arguing that male students' familiarity with the business world gave them a competitive advantage, two MIT engineering alumni started an annual seminar, "Getting the Job You Want in Industry: A Woman's Guerrilla Guide to the Pinstriped World." By advising coeds on resume writing and interview techniques, alumni hoped to level the playing field.

At that time, there were very few women on the MIT faculty. Millie and I organized monthly lunches for women faculty across the Institute. The purpose was to encourage women faculty to be successful in the pursuit of their careers. We discussed the tenure process, how to get grant money, the mentoring of women students, and other inequities and how to fix them. We had broad support from the senior administration of MIT and, typically, we would invite a dean or a provost to attend these lunches and speak with the women faculty.

I recall a meeting that Jerry Wiesner held for us, at the president's house, to discuss our agenda. We were a very positive group, we appreciated what MIT was doing, and provided positive suggestions as to how we could all move, together, towards our goal. Rather than criticize, we worked to improve the situation. I recall that, at the meeting at the president's house, I remarked that MIT was lucky to have us.

During this time, Mary Rowe was brought to MIT to serve as ombudsman. She was a valued and effective member of our community. As Mary reports, the job of special assistant for women and work was created because of both Millie's work and the work of others, in 1971 or '72. So, at the same time, MIT was advertising the special assistant's job, and she interviewed with Millie as a crucial member of the MIT community. Then, when Paul Gray asked to talk with her about the job, she considered it seriously. Meeting Millie made a major difference to Mary in deciding to come to MIT.

As we all know, MIT, as a result of the student, faculty, and alumni interest, moved to greatly increase the number of women students to, now, about 46% at the undergraduate level, as well as increase the percentage at the graduate level and at the faculty level. When the number of women faculty increased significantly, monthly lunches for the entire set of women faculty at MIT were no longer practical. However, individual schools began to hold such monthly meetings, instead. Also, a program in Women's Gender Studies was founded by Ruth Perry in 1984.

During IAP in 1972, Dresselhaus and Wick convened a new organization, The Women's Forum, which brought together undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and wives, to develop consciousness raising skills and express concern about women's health, athletic opportunities, day care, and career planning.

Emily Wick, as Dean of Women, served as an administrative advocate for MIT's coeds, ready to assist women students as they made their way through this very male institution. Wick stepped in to mediate when coeds encountered trouble dealing with advisors, professors, or teaching assistants.

Similarly, many of MIT's few women faculty considered it their responsibility, as successful professionals, to lobby on behalf of other women on campus. Initially intended for students as a meeting group to discuss women's issues, this group became employee-based and remains so, today.  It meets monthly. It has had a significant effect in improving the quality of life for women employees.

An ad hoc committee on the role of women students at MIT, chaired by both Millie Dresselhaus and civil engineering major Paula Stone, drew on fundamental feminist principles to declare that a discriminatory attitude against women is so institutionalized in American universities as to be out of the awareness of many of those contributing to it. Their report noted that women at MIT faced both opposition and silent prejudice.

The document represented a self-directed rallying cry, telling MIT women that gender discrimination would change only when female students, faculty, and staff organized to demand improvement. The early 1970’s brought a burst of activism, as MIT women drew strength from the national feminist movement to assert their presence physically, intellectually, socially, and politically.

Advocates carefully listed all the awards coeds received, in order to document that women could, indeed, be good engineers. This also showed remaining doubters that women could, in fact, lead and succeed in the most difficult technical studies. MIT's admissions office had revised photographs and text in their catalog to highlight coeds, and the office sent special recruiting material to all female national merit and national achievement semifinalists.

MIT's association of women students expressed concern, however, that it would require more high powered efforts to increase female enrollment, to overcome social forces pushing girls away from science and engineering, and to demystify incorrect assumptions about women at MIT. AWS produced its own pamphlets and encouraged high school girls to apply. They also urged their members to contact hometown seniors over Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation, explaining that “the women, in particular, may just need an encouraging word from you before taking the plunge.”  MIT coeds also volunteered to sit in the admissions office, during the peak interview period, ready to chat with interested girls.

Millie served as the first chair of the National Academy of Science National Academy of Engineering Committee on Women in Science and Engineering. This is a central activity of the academies that continues today. The committee has held conferences and published reports on women in science and engineering. The data in these reports have been widely quoted and the books have been on the bestseller list, at the academy.

Millie also served as president of the American Physical Society and, later, served as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics at the American Physical Society. She did this for two years and was also a committee member. Since this followed her role as president of the society, she was able to have a large impact.

Some talks she gave to the council of APS, which concerned the international comparisons of women in the US and other countries, wound up leading to proactive activities which have had a beneficial effect in increasing female participation in the study of physics and the choice of physics as a career.

Millie reported that she trained about twice as many women PhDs as their male counterparts. Many of these women have reached tenure at major universities. Some other women, whom she taught in class and with whom she had a close relationship, have also become important leaders in the world of science and technology.

We all owe Millie a debt of gratitude for being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of this opportunity to have the significant impact that she has had on women in science and engineering, both at MIT and nationwide.


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