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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

MIT women by Mollie B. '06

Rockin' the two X chromosomes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I’ve noticed, in my travels around the country and the internet, that people are really interested in the experience of female students at MIT. I was asked several times at my grad school interviews how the environment was for female students, and whether I had experienced discrimination as an MIT woman.

I’ll say right up front — although I do understand why people are interested in this question, I find it decidedly odd… sort of like someone asking, “So, how’s the oxygen situation in Cambridge? Is there enough air for everybody to breathe?” Just as I’ve never noticed a shortage of breathable O2, I’ve never experienced discrimination as a female MIT student.

I think the reason this question comes to mind are severalfold —
1. The School of Science report. Several years ago, female faculty in the School of Science reported that they were discriminated against for their gender. MIT investigated and found that they were, and began taking steps to remedy the situation.
2. The Larry Summers thing.
3. The fact that MIT is a science and engineering school, and even progressive people have this weird mental roadblock against women who get excited about test tubes and servos.

Hey, I’ve been there. I went to public school in a small-to-medium-sized town in Ohio, and although I had my share of inspiring science teachers, I also had one or two who wondered aloud why a girl would be interested in majoring in science. I’m going to graduate school in biology at a time when a lot of my friends from high school are getting married. It’s a weird thing to be a female scientist in the world, I guess.

But it’s not a weird thing to be a female scientist at MIT. And while there are more female scientists than female engineers at MIT, it’s also not a weird thing to be a female engineer here.

Majors on the MIT cheerleading squad this year: civil/environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, EECS, biology, physics, brain and cognitive sciences, chemical engineering, EAPS, management, mathematics. Yup, those are our cheerleaders.

Personally speaking, I like to say that the only discrimination I’ve ever faced as an MIT woman is that all the chairs in the microscope room in my lab are too short for me to see into the eyepiece. And all the coats in the mouse room button the guy way. I’ve never had my intelligence questioned or my opinion discarded because of my gender — people at MIT just aren’t like that. As long as you’re smart and good at what you do, nobody cares whether you’re male or female. Well, except maybe people who want to date you. They might care.

There are several different ways female students at MIT look at their female-ness. There’s the group, typified by this editorial (written by Cassi Hunt ’08), that basically says, “Yeah, I’m a woman, so what?” Then there’s the group, represented by this editorial (by my friend Rose ’05), that’s more “Sure, women are treated pretty well here, but things can always get better, so let’s work toward that end.”

Some women at MIT join groups like the Society of Women Engineers or the Association for Women Students (Bryan and Mitra — is it still active now that Rose has graduated?); some people take courses in Women’s Studies, join sororities, or go to the regular coffee and snacks events for women at MIT. For those who are interested, there are a lot of resources for female students at MIT — various student groups, and even an entire suite of women-only rooms on main campus. As far as living groups go, McCormick is all-female (and one of the nicest dorms on campus), and there are all-female suites or sections in many of the other dorms.

Personally, I’m more in the “I’m a woman, so what?” camp. I’ve never joined any of the women’s clubs at MIT, and I’m not one of the ~25% of MIT women who joined a sorority. I live in a co-ed suite in a co-ed dorm. And while I’d encourage prospective women to consider using these resources, it’s okay if you don’t want to. For many of us, our gender doesn’t go very far in defining who we are as students.

Any other questions on what it’s like to be an [x] at MIT? Or questions in general? I know lots of you are questionful, and I’ll get to some answers next time I check in.

EDIT: I stuck a really super, and I think really relevant, poem relating to this issue in my Athena locker. Hey, who says MIT kids don’t appreciate poetry?

14 responses to “MIT women”

  1. What do you mean by “button the guy way”?

  2. Shan says:

    Rhiannon, a girl’s shirt and a guy’s shirt have buttons on different sides. Wierd, yes. It makes about much sense as hot dogs in packages of 6 and buns in packages of 8, which they’ve finally started to change. I don’t know how I know this. In girls’ shirts, the buttons are attached to the left side while a guys’ are attached to the right. Some one correct me if I’m wrong.

  3. rorosen says:

    it helps organize your cross-dressing,..

  4. Drew says:

    Yeah, women’s clothing has the buttons on the opposite side of what are found in mens, i heard that it goes back into the 16-1700’s due to the tendency of women to be dressed by their servants. Since a greater number of individuals are right handed, it was perceived to be easier for a person to fasten their own buttons in the “male” fashion with the buttons on the right side, while for females since the servant was facing them when they were dressed, it was easier for the buttons to be on the left. I have no idea where i heard this from but it makes sense if it was the case.

    As to the gender comment, all I have to say is that the more intelligent people that enter into the fields of science and math the better.

  5. Leo Luo says:


    I can understand the suspicion of gender discrimination from outsiders who apply stereotypes to this school, because it is a very stereotyped place after all, at least in many people’s eyes. But could there be biased self-evaluation held by the insiders? by the MIT women who already feel special, though less now, about the X to Y chromosome ratio (<75%) on the campus?

    And you mentioned the gathering of science and engineering sisters, what is the situation like for the frat boys?


  6. Kim says:

    Hi Mollie,

    Thanks for this post–I’m in the same camp, possibly because the only “discrimination” I’ve experienced comes from people who tell me that I must be scared to go into math because of the discrimination, but shouldn’t be.

    Anyway, sounds like a great situation at MIT. I’m currently beginning to try to decide between MIT and a verrry attractive offer at Caltech, and gender balance is one of the things I’m considering smile


  7. Christina says:

    Yeah, I’m definitely in the “I’m a girl, so what?” category.

  8. zwc says:

    My school has more female MIT admits than male admits. I feel so proud of us females. And all of the female admits are all very qualified and talented individuals majoring in a science field.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know how the proportion of women to men breaks down by department? I’m guessing there are more women in some departments than in others, but I’ve never actually seen any data.

  10. Ruth '07 says:


    I love te “I’m a girl, so what?” category!

    Thank you!!

    I switched from computer science to political science during my freshmen year, and my TA (a woman) dragged me to her office to sit me down and ask if I was leaving computer science because I felt intimidated by the guys in the class. Excuse me? I was the most vocal person in the class! I’m also the happiest with my major today smile

  11. Mitra says:

    Hey, I’m involved with the AWS mentorship program, but I’m not sure what else is active from last year.

  12. Minh says:

    Thank you for this awesome post. I always thought of it as People in science – why does it matter what gender someone is? The “I’m a girl, so what?” philosophy is the best.

  13. I’ve only started reading ur blog since a few months ago but I was wondering if you could direct me to an entry that talks about the grad school application process. I’m currently a freshie at MIT and was just curious about the grad school application process.

    My GPA is not looking too hot right now and I was wondering what a “typical” or range of GPAs would be for admission into a grad school (like the ones that you were admitted into; and congrats very much on ur successes! smile) and how much it matters that you attend a HYPMS/MIT vs. say a state school. (like will they even factor that in…that you went to a school w/ very little grade inflation?)

    Thanks much!

  14. Sarab says:

    When i read the title, I found it decidedly sexist. The content was thankfully, rather balanced and made sense. Thank God.