Campus & Community

One woman’s career in academe

8 min read
Photo of Dorothy
Dorothy Zinberg, lecturer in public policy at the KSG, stands in the front door of the Faculty Club, an entrance that was off-limits to her when she first came to Harvard. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

In the 1950s, says Dorothy Zinberg, the faculty wives in Harvard’s government department met regularly for lunch in the Faculty Club.

“Number one,” she recalls, “you came in from the side entrance; you were never allowed in the front door. Number two, you sat in the ladies’ dining room.” And, Zinberg remembers a professor’s wife telling her, “the faculty wives sat according to rank, with the wife of the chairman at the head of the table. And from the middle of the table up, they talked about their servants. And from the middle of the table down, they talked about their cleaning women.

“In the 1960s, we began coming in the front door of the Faculty Club, but we were still shuffled off to the ladies’ dining room,” she says. In 1971, by which time she was an adviser to President Bok on women’s issues at Harvard, she reserved a table in the main dining room, over the phone, for “Dr. Zinberg,” which miraculously turned back into a table for “Mrs. Zinberg,” in the ladies’ dining room, when she arrived.

During the 1970s, the ladies’ dining room was rechristened the “north” dining room, and reserved for nonsmokers. This effectively kept it the ladies’ dining room, as women were smoking somewhat less than men at the time.

“I think after all those years, we finally have equity in the dining room,” Zinberg says with a smile. But where women hang their shingle, not just lay down their forks, still needs some work, Zinberg says.

Zinberg, who has been affiliated with Harvard for almost 50 years, whether as a graduate student, research assistant, undergraduate adviser, dean, or lecturer in public policy, has a unique perspective on women’s status at Harvard and Radcliffe over time.

She came to Harvard as a research assistant and then a graduate student in biochemistry in the early 1950s. Increasingly interested in social scientific approaches to science and medicine, Zinberg received a master’s degree in sociology from Boston University in 1959 and a Ph.D. in the social science of medicine from Harvard in 1966. She worked closely as a research assistant and teaching fellow with psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and sociologist Talcott Parsons.

As a freshman adviser at Radcliffe during this time, Zinberg noticed a change in women’s self-image. “In the 1960s, you began to see a tremendous shift in aspiration. Before, the ethos was, I will do very well as a student, I will get married, and I will have children. Women had been trained to be first-rate students, which is very different from thinking, college is my first step into my career.”

Cambridge in the 1960s, a male friend of Zinberg’s commented, was still a place full of “unemployed or underemployed women Ph.D.’s who were busy studying Julia Child and making fabulous dinners.”

“If I look back at the 1960s, that is so true,” Zinberg says. “Everything had to be right. The professional life, the children, the entertaining, and the social life. Now you see the shift into a much more realistic, informal lifestyle, with the man as likely to be in the kitchen as the woman.”

Erikson and Parsons were supportive of Zinberg’s research into how people form professional and institutional identities, and her later work on the career development of scientists.

But Zinberg saw in other female teaching fellows, and in herself, a tendency to be “too easily lulled into being the ‘brilliant man’s bright young assistant.’” In 1968, she won a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship to University College London. “It was almost unconscious, a feeling of, if I don’t get out of here, I’m going to be the brilliant professor’s ‘smart young woman’ forever. I felt it was very important to change my identity as a graduate student.”

Zinberg returned to Harvard in 1970, winning grants during the next decades from the Ford, Carnegie, National Science, and Nuffield foundations, among others, to continue her research in science and technology policy. In 1972, she became a lecturer in public policy in Harvard’s sociology department, and in 1978, a lecturer at the Center for Science and International Affairs (KSG), a title she has held ever since. She worked on the “soft end” of international security studies – social-psychological attitudes of scientists involved in nonproliferation activities. But in the 1970s, the gender war was still going on at home.

‘How come she isn’t married?’

“Once the mores changed in the ’70s, the women were ready. It wasn’t as if there was this cultural lag – it was as if there’d always been this pent-up ambition, and desire to accomplish something important, and the minute society said it was OK,” she snaps her fingers, “they were off.” But not everyone felt comfortable with these changes.

“There was outright hostility – that was a given,” Zinberg recalls. “My name had been submitted to be the master of a Harvard House. The then-master took me to lunch, and as he began to talk about it, he became apoplectic. It was as if, if a woman becomes a Housemaster, there is no Harvard left! My point was then – which I’m afraid upset him even more – if they’re really going to make a change, considering the almost 50 percent divorce rate in our country, the next head of a House should be a divorced woman with children. If you want young women to have a realistic sense of what their futures may be like, they should learn early what it is like to try to have a marriage and try to raise a family; it isn’t as easy as it was being portrayed.”

There were more subtle gender biases to overcome as well. Beginning in the 1970s, Zinberg was appointed to a number of national and university committees. She was on the first committee at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) dealing with women’s issues; she chaired an advisory board on international science at the National Science Foundation; she was named to committees at the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, and she was an acting dean at Radcliffe and served on committees dealing with faculty hiring, admissions, awards, and fellowships.

Whether in Washington or at Harvard, “if a woman’s name came up for a position, the first response was, what does her husband do? Or it was, ‘Gee, I know her husband, he’s got a chair at Penn, there’s no way he would come to Harvard.’ Women didn’t exist on their own. And if they weren’t married, there was always the question, will she get married? Or, how come she isn’t married?”

Subtle forms of bias

By the 1980s, Zinberg felt that a waxing in women’s professional opportunities brought a waning in students’ interest in women’s issues. “I saw that as one of the downside legacies of the ’70s, that we who were actively involved in women’s issues felt we’d made so much progress that the next generation of women thought it was a piece of cake, everything had been done.”

The Houses had become co-residential, men’s and women’s educational opportunities seemed roughly equal, and women were joining the faculty.

Women undergraduates and graduate students still come to Zinberg with “absolutely outlandish” stories of being passed over in the classroom, of men being “openly scornful” of their professional abilities once they become pregnant, of still being identified by their husband’s accomplishments. Zinberg remains hopeful, though. “So much has improved. I see that the distance between the 1950s and the present is so vast, that I have to believe that if we’ve come so far, within the next decade or two, we’re going to get even farther.” Greater female representation in academic and administrative ranks; structural support for two-career families (day-care centers; parental leaves); and continued attention to subtle forms of gender bias remain of concern to Zinberg.

Zinberg credits her family background and a marriage that was a partnership for much of what she has accomplished. Raised in Brookline, Mass., Zinberg witnessed the respect accorded her maternal grandmother and the marriage of equals between not only her own parents but that of several aunts and uncles. Her uncle and aunt, Nathan Cohen (A.B. ’31, Ph.D. ’34) and Sylvia Golden Cohen (Radcliffe A.B. ’33), pursued parallel professional lives into their 80s, including deanships at UCLA in social welfare and student counseling, respectively.

Her late husband, Norman E. Zinberg, was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School for several decades, and unfailingly encouraged her in her career.

“Had I been married to anyone with a different view of what women could accomplish, or came from a family where women hadn’t been given a lot of importance, it would have been so easy to quit. I got hit a lot here. But my husband would say, ‘You go right back, and hit ’em back.’ And I hear his voice even now.”