Washington — The heart of the story is the tape measure. Try to imagine the best and the brightest tenured professors lurking around the halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, measuring the size of the men's labs and offices against their own.
There is something so techie about it, so wonky, so MIT. The 15 women -- physicists, chemists, biologists -- were in search of hard numbers to prove what they had once been reluctant to admit: that men and women at the highest levels were still treated differently.
None of these women would have measured the MIT floors for gender bias alone. It would have seemed so petty. There are a thousand ways to tell yourself that your own experience is, just that, your own. Better to go back to the lab, get your work done.
But in 1994, when DNA researcher Nancy Hopkins had one of those last-straw experiences -- a course she created was canceled while the man who taught with her turned it into a book and CD-ROM of his own -- she began to call around. One by one, senior faculty women who had never discussed this issue with each other, shared stories and signed up for basic research.
It turned out that the women had about half the space of the men. It turned out that they had about 20 percent less pay. In fact, by every measurement -- research money and committee membership and on and on -- the women came up short.
Their research eventually drove this institution to its knees, or rather, to its senses. "We love data here," says Hopkins with a tinge of irony. "MIT is very data-driven."
Now, in a report to the faculty, the administration not only fessed up to unintentional but real gender bias, it published solutions and promises.
Since the news broke, since the women's Web page became a meeting ground for women faculty members elsewhere, since the e-mails started flying back and forth, the MIT story has had a ripple effect across campuses. It's elicited two reactions: If it happens to the tenured women at MIT, it must happen everywhere. If the MIT women can do it, we can do it.
As Hopkins says, "When I was young, I thought the problem had been solved by an older generation. Denial is amazing. Generally, these incidents are so humiliating. When you find out that you have been the object of discrimination, you think there must be something wrong with you."
But this group of 15 had another motivation. These women who had devoted their lives to science and teaching feared that their "poor quality of life" had actually made them "negative role models" to younger women.
Negative role models? MIT scientists? These are women the next generation doesn't want to grow up to be like?
At first glance this seems absurd. But there is something powerful in this nonscientific insight. The older generation, the stressed-out, sometimes burned-out front line of the women's movement, has lately become the target for their daughters' distress. How many younger women have said to their elders: "If that's having it all, you can have it."
Today another flight of books is being written by twenty- and thirtysomething women playing 'pin the blame on the feminist.' Danielle Crittenden has made her name telling women "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us." The well-heeled mom and writer intones: "Our problems originate not in our oppression, but in our new freedom."
The conservatives writing for the Women's Quarterly, the talking- head moms who lecture about full-time momism -- without any irony -- join that chorus. But there are many apolitical young women discouraged at the heralded "choices" they face: from the work-family crunch to the subtle but real bias.
"We find in general that our graduate students take a look at our way of life and say, 'I don't want it,"' says Lotte Bailyn, the dean of the faculty of MIT. She might be speaking for many young women on or off campus.
Yet many in the older generation know that it isn't too much change that has led the daughters to dismay. It's too little change.
Now at MIT, a gang of 15 have changed the prospects for the next generation as well as for themselves. That's a positive role model. By any tape measure.
-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.