CMU professor Blum takes on sexism in the workplace — starting with her campus
After spending much of her career advocating for equality for women in math and science and tolerating what she calls endemic sexism, Lenore Blum said she has had enough.
Lenore Blum has had enough.
After spending much of her career advocating for equality for women in math and science — while nonetheless tolerating what she describes as endemic sexism in the fields — she has reached the tipping point and announced her resignation as Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
Blum has been lauded by the university for helping CMU far outshine others in gender parity, with women now comprising about half its population of computer science majors. Her resignation, she said, was precipitated by sexism within the innovation/entrepreneurial community at CMU — a community which she helped foster through her creation of start-up incubator Project Olympus in 2007.
Her announcement that after 20 years at CMU, she and her husband, computer science professor Manuel Blum, would be resigning engendered “shock” and “sadness” among throngs of her colleagues and former students. A vast number of emails she received from other women thanked her for calling out the pervasive sexism which many said had created obstacles for them in their own professional advancement.
“What was totally unexpected, and shocked and saddened me, was the outpouring of ‘MeToo’ responses from women colleagues on campus,” Blum said. “A number of the email responses expressed almost a cathartic relief that I have dared to air it. Almost all thanked me for speaking out.”
The roadblocks for me to continue what I do best have become insurmountable.
In a letter to colleagues dated Aug. 13, Blum explained her reasons for resigning: “The roadblocks for me to continue what I do best have become insurmountable,” she wrote. “I have no intention to continue to be subjected to the professional harassment, micro-aggressions, machinations and sexist management I have experienced over the past three years due to the new entrepreneurial management structure on campus.
“I am certainly not naive about the (often subtle) demeaning of women in predominantly male fields, having been in such environments a good deal more, and longer, than most,” she continued. “But never in my career have I been subjected to the level of abusive mind games, roadblocks erected, information withheld and hoops I have been put through to get on with my work.”
The sexual discrimination, she said, “has taken many forms, including: my being misled, kept out of major decisions and events that affect our work and refusals to answer my emails. … This is no longer tolerable.”
Blum sent a letter conveying these same sentiments to university officials in May 2017, but received no response, she said.
“Carnegie Mellon University is saddened by Lenore and Manuel Blum’s decision to resign from the university,” said CMU spokesperson Abby Simmons in an email. “We recognize their lasting contributions to the university, the city of Pittsburgh, and to the field of computer science. Their decades of extraordinary scholarship and dedicated service to their students, their colleagues and the university community have greatly enhanced our institution. We will always consider them to be part of the CMU family and wish them well in their future endeavors.
“Lenore and Manuel raised some important issues in the email announcing their resignation,” Simmons continued. “We are committed to examining them and acting accordingly on our findings.”
Blum, who refers to herself as an “accidental activist” — borrowing the phrase from the Chronicle headline used for a feature written about her last year — received her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968, a time when women were not treated as equals to men in the fields of math and science. After seeing the disparity in hiring, as well as in more subtle ways like excluding women from professional panels, Blum set out to change the paradigm.
In 1971, she helped found the Association for Women in Mathematics, an organization that helped women in math pursue better careers. In 1973, she joined the faculty of Mills College, where she founded the Mathematics and Computer Science Department — believed to be the first one of its kind at a women’s college.
I want the situation I went through not to happen to anyone else.
In 1975, Blum helped start the Expanding Your Horizons network for girls in middle and high school. That organization still exists, providing female STEM role models for young women and giving them the chance to participate in relevant hands-on activities at conferences.
She came to CMU in 1999 and established Women @SCS (School of Computer Science), a program based on research showing that women can perform as well as men in science if only they are provided with the same sorts of support that men naturally have — things like role models of their own gender, opportunities for leadership, mentoring and networking organizations to help find employment.
CMU heralded Blum’s contributions to the field and to the university. As recently as June, the SCS retweeted: “Congratulations to @BlumLenore @CSDatCMU for the Alumnae Lifetime Achievement Award she received yesterday at Simmons College. Her work on increasing the number of women in math and computer science has had a profound impact, particularly on @SCSatCMU.”
In 2007, Blum founded Project Olympus at CMU, an innovative entrepreneurial incubator created to help bridge the gap between university research and business. It was her recent experiences in the entrepreneurial community at CMU that spurred her resignation, and she is now ready to once again don the cap of activist, hoping to create awareness of what she says are the often insidious ways that women are prevented from achieving their potential in the workplace.
“The main thing I want to do is shine light on this issue and get other women to come out with their stories,” she said. “I want the situation I went through not to happen to anyone else.”
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an investigative piece about female executives at Wells Fargo claiming they had been demeaned in the workplace and passed over for promotions, and that their concerns had been ignored.
Blum is convinced that sexism at the university — and beyond — has negatively impacted a “huge number” of women, based in part on the emails she received following her letter announcing her resignation.
I’m glad you wrote this letter because CMU needs to be ‘woken up.’
“I’m glad you wrote this letter because CMU needs to be ‘woken up,’” one email stated. “I have been cut off at faculty meetings, my concerns ignored for years when male colleagues who are not more eminent nor articulate are given the floor. I too am quite sick of it. Sorry to vent, but I’m glad that someone has the courage to stand up and act.”
Another colleague wrote: “I want to thank you on behalf of women at CMU for speaking out. I know there are many of us here that share these sentiments. I have been struggling with similar issues for years and it has led me to question my own future here at CMU.”
A 2016 internal study by CMU Institutional Research and Analysis entitled “Faculty Experiences Study” shows a vast disparity in the experiences of males and females working at the university. When asked whether they had experienced another faculty member “making an assumption about you based upon a stereotype about your birth sex,” 62 percent of women answered in the affirmative, compared to only 10 percent of male respondents. When asked whether another faculty member “did not offer you an opportunity or invite you to participate in something” based on gender, 28 percent of women answered “yes,” compared to only 5 percent of men.
Likewise, a 2017 Pew study — conducted prior to the advent of the #MeToo movement — showed that 42 percent of women in the United States say they have faced discrimination on the job because of their gender.
“Women are roughly four times as likely as men to say they have been treated as if they were not competent because of their gender (23 percent of employed women versus 6 percent of men), and they are about three times as likely as men to say they have experienced repeated small slights at work because of their gender (16 percent versus 5 percent),” Pew reported.
And the number of women facing sexism at work increases significantly along with their level of education.
“While 57 percent of working women with a postgraduate degree say they have experienced some form of gender discrimination at work, for example, the same is true for 40 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree and 39 percent of those who did not complete college,” according to Pew. “Roughly three in 10 working women with a postgraduate degree (29 percent) say they have experienced repeated small slights at work because of their gender, compared with 18 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree and 12 percent with less education.”
Blum said she has seen these inequities play out at CMU in its entrepreneurial community.
“The management structure I refer to in my email is one that I have come to understand is inherently sexist,” she claimed. “Fashioned on the business model with a CEO in charge — with almost complete control and being the face of the center, both on and off campus — it enables wanton abuse of power given bad actors at the helm. It has no place in a university setting.”
“I think it would be very easy to morph the discussion into sexual harassment, which ironically is the ‘sexier’ topic,” she said. “But one would be whitewashing the more pervasive, and no less damaging effect of sexism in the workplace, not only by individuals, but enabled by systems incorporated in the university, and elsewhere.”
On Aug. 22, CMU President Farnam Jahanian announced that he would be creating a task force to “oversee campus culture and respond to incidents that fall outside the school’s standards,” according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This new task force follows one convened last year on the CMU experience. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
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