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Alumni Home > News & Events > Noteworthy > News & Features

MIT Panel "Alumnae Through the Ages" Reflects on Changes for Women

by Lauren Clark, School of Engineering

Chemical engineer Elisabeth Drake recalled that when she was an MIT student in the 1950s, a faculty committee proposed that the Institute should admit men only. The reason? Women wasted academic resources because they only ended up married with children.

Fortunately for Drake and her fellow alumnae, the proposal was ignored - something that MIT's new president, Susan Hockfield, would also appreciate.

This recollection was one of many shared at "Alumnae Through the Ages," a panel that kicked off the MIT Alumni Association's Women's Leadership Conference on April 30. Many of the 200 alumnae who attended the conference, titled "Innovating Success," did end up married with children - and that didn't prevent them from becoming leaders in their professional fields.

Elisabeth Drake '58  and Debra Judelson '73
Elisabeth Drake '58 (left) discussed the need for balance in one's professional and personal life, and Debra Judelson '73 recalled overcoming discrimination as a woman in the medical field.

Three other women who graduated from MIT in different decades joined Drake '58 as speakers in "Alumnae Through the Ages:" Debra Judelson '73, a cardiologist and nationally recognized authority on women's health; Wendy Haller '88, a senior partner in the intellectual property department of the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; and Erika Ebbel '04, who started the WhizKids Foundation and competed in the 2004 Miss America Pageant. Their stories exemplify both the steady progress and persistent challenges that women in science and engineering have experienced over the past half-century.

The speakers and audience members who joined in the panel's Q&A session highlighted a few common factors behind their accomplishments: parental encouragement of their interest in math and science, the quality of the MIT education, support from spouses in child rearing, and plain old persistence and determination. "I don't think physics lasts after age 60, but persistence prevails," said Aviva Brecher '68. Alumni Association President Linda Sharpe '69 moderated the panel.

Elisabeth Drake '58

Women currently make up half of undergraduate students and about a third of graduate students at MIT. When Drake arrived on campus 50 years ago, she was one of only 16 women in a class of 1,000.

"I remember admiring the old ladies I knew as a student, and now I am becoming one of them," she said as she looked around the room. One of the "old ladies" Drake remembers best is Katherine Dexter McCormick, a 1904 MIT graduate, an early advocate of women's rights and birth control, and a mentor for many MIT alumnae.

"In [the 1950s], the admission of women to MIT was limited by the ability to accommodate them in the dorms. There was pressure to move out after a year or two so that more women could move in," said Drake. Women's enrollment rose significantly in the 1960s after McCormick provided funding for a women's dorm.

Before endowing the dorm, McCormick offered support to women at MIT in other ways, including providing taxi funds for bad weather and inviting students to tea - white gloves required - at her Commonwealth Avenue mansion. She also offered advice. At the first tea party Drake attended, McCormick greeted her guests with, "'Well young ladies, I assume you know about birth control, but I wonder if you've given serious thought as to how you're going to manage your career and your reproductive life.' That broke the ice," said Drake.

Striking a balance between professional and personal life was a theme that came up again and again at the conference. Drake learned the value of that balance the hard way.

"At MIT, I learned to be competitive and a work addict. I didn't learn to balance work and life. The stress caught up with me, and I ended up being an alcoholic and being fired from a vice president position at Arthur D. Little." Eventually, she said, she rehabilitated and learned "that I can both work hard and play."

Debra Judelson '73

Judelson arrived at MIT in 1969, one of 66 women in the freshman class. Like a lot of college students at the time, she became politically active. "The Vietnam war was hanging over our heads. In 1970, [the U.S] invaded Cambodia, and we rioted. We became activists."

One of the first things the metallurgy and materials science major did at MIT was run for class office. That way, "If [MIT administrators] wanted a woman, they called on me." Judelson was invited to join a committee overseeing a new technology and culture seminar that "brought the outside world into MIT." She remembers feeling a bit awestruck as she rubbed elbows with the likes of Jerome Weisner (then MIT's provost), and Salvador Luria (molecular biology pioneer), as well as seminar guests such as the writer Carlos Castaneda.

As a senior, Judelson enrolled in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences program, the first step in a career in medicine that has included founding the Women's Heart Institute, co-authoring the Women's Complete Wellness Book, and appearing on the national news and the Oprah Winfrey Show as a women's health expert. "I owe everything I do to my education at MIT and my experiences there," said Judelson.

Starting out, she faced discrimination as a woman in the medical field, despite her credentials. She recalled applying for a cardiology fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco and being told, "'Oh that's too bad. We take a woman every other year and we just took one this year. We're not due to take one your year.'"

Family leave policy was nonexistent. Judelson was back at work only six days after giving birth to her first daughter and counted on her husband for much of the child rearing. Judelson's two daughters now attend MIT. Despite her field's progress in work-family balance issues, she said, "I'm still the only woman in my group of 18 doctors."

Wendy Haller '88 and Erika Ebbel '04
Wendy Haller '88 (left) found that her engineering degree aptly prepared her for law school, while Erika Ebbel '04 talked about promoting science education in her role as Miss Massachusetts 2004.

Wendy Haller '88

"There was no impediment to studying science and math in my family. I was a natural tinkerer and became a mechanical engineer," said Haller. By the time she enrolled at MIT, in the mid-1980s, the number of women at the Institute had risen to nearly a third of the student population. Still, Haller had to actively seek out other women. She decided to live in McCormick Hall and join MIT's first sorority. "Men had natural networking opportunities through fraternities, so I was in the first rush class of Alpha Phi."

After earning her master's in mechanical engineering, Haller went to work as a technical consultant at a patent law firm. When her job led her to law school, she thought that, as an engineer, she'd be unprepared. "I was pleasantly surprised. The analytic skills that MIT had us hone directly applied to legal analysis. Problem solving is problem solving," she said.

Women were decidedly in the minority at the firm where Haller started out. She remembers being criticized by a male colleague as unprofessional for wearing a pantsuit instead of a skirt. "I pointed out that, in my experience, many professionals wear pants."

Moreover, "maternity leave was a foreign concept." A colleague of Haller's had a fax machine installed in her hospital room while recovering from labor and was back at work in two weeks. "Things are much better now. Women head departments and chair committees. There is a work-life balance committee at my firm. The treatment of women in the legal profession has improved dramatically in the last 10 years, and I think it will continue to improve."

Erika Ebbel '04

During her high school years on the "science-fair circuit," Ebbel knew she wanted to come to MIT. She was already doing advanced work with pharmaceutical companies, investigating the antiviral effects of certain herbs. "It was a wonderful experience. Many of the older kids I admired were going to MIT, and it became my goal to come to MIT."

While attending the Institute as a chemistry major, Ebbel took an interest in community service, so much so that she started a non-profit foundation called WhizKids. The organization's mission is to spark interest in math and science among elementary, middle and high school students.

One day in 2002, a friend secretly signed Ebbel up to compete in the Miss America Pageant. When Ebbel found out, she decided to go for it. "Wow, have I ever fit in less?" she recalled thinking as she showed up for her first local competition. After placing as a runner-up in 2002 and 2003, she finally became Miss Massachusetts in 2004 and competed in that year's Miss America Pageant.

Ebbel made no apologies for participating in a contest that many would call as antiquated as a white-gloved tea party. She views the pageant as just one of many avenues through which she can achieve her goal of promoting science education. The community-service work her title requires has enabled her to meet with politicians and other influential people. "It's a public-speaking opportunity. It really gives you a platform on which to talk about the issues that matter to you. Being from MIT, having the non-profit [WhizKids], and now being Miss Massachusetts has opened a tremendous number of doors for me."

An article about the Women's Leadership Conference as a whole appears on the Sloan School of Management web site.

Read an article about how MIT policies have boosted the number of women faculty in the schools of science and engineering.


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