In 1999 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made the remarkable admission that it discriminated against women on its faculty, setting off a discussion about the need for more women at the top levels of science. The Exceptions is the untold story of the sixteen highly accomplished female scientists whose work convinced the university to acknowledge the problem and institute changes. Written by the journalist who broke the story in 1999 for The Boston Globe, it is an intimate narrative which centres on Nancy Hopkins, the leader of the group and a reluctant feminist who became a hero to two generations of women in science.
Hopkins began her career in science in a lab as a Radcliffe undergraduate in 1963, the year Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published. She found a powerful mentor in the lab director, James Watson, who had shared a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Under his tutelage she completed her Ph.D. at Harvard. She and the other women scientists entered the work force in the 1970s during a push for affirmative action. When they were hired for positions in labs at prestigious universities, including MIT, they embarked on their careers thinking that discrimination against women was a thing of the past and that science was a pure meritocracy. For years they explained away the discrimination they experienced as the exception not the rule. Only when these few women came together after two decades did they recognize the relentless pattern: women were marginalized and minimized, especially as they grew older, their contributions stolen and erased. Meanwhile, men of similar or lesser ability had their way paved. This is a story that will ring true for all professional women who experience what those at MIT came to call ’21st century discrimination’: a subtle and stubborn bias, often unconscious but still damaging. Readers will learn about scientists whose work has often been overlooked, and also about the history of women’s push for fair treatment and how they were viewed – by themselves and others – as they struggled to be taken seriously.
‘Outstanding’ Bonnie Garmus, bestselling author of Lessons in Chemistry.