As late as 1999, women who succeeded in science were called “exceptional” as if it were unusual for them to be so bright. They were exceptional, not because they could succeed at science but because of all they accomplished despite the hurdles.
“Gripping…one puts down the book inspired by the women’s grit, tenacity, and brilliance.” —Science “Riveting.” —Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Gene
In 1963, a female student was attending a lecture given by Nobel Prize winner James Watson, then tenured at Harvard. At nineteen, she was struggling to define her future. She had given herself just ten years to fulfill her professional ambitions before starting the family she was expected to have. For women at that time, a future on the usual path of academic science was unimaginable—but during that lecture, young Nancy Hopkins fell in love with the promise of genetics. Confidently believing science to be a pure meritocracy, she embarked on a career.
In 1999, Hopkins, now a noted molecular geneticist and cancer researcher at MIT, divorced and childless, found herself underpaid and denied the credit and resources given to men of lesser rank. Galvanized by the flagrant favoritism, Hopkins led a group of sixteen women on the faculty in a campaign that prompted MIT to make the historic admission that it had long discriminated against its female scientists. The sixteen women were a formidable group: their work has advanced our understanding of everything from cancer to geology, from fossil fuels to the inner workings of the human brain. And their work to highlight what they called “21st-century discrimination”—a subtle, stubborn, often unconscious bias—set off a national reckoning with the pervasive sexism in science.
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who broke the story, The Exceptions chronicles groundbreaking science and a history-making fight for equal opportunity. It is the “excellent and infuriating” (The New York Times) story of how this group of determined, brilliant women used the power of the collective and the tools of science to inspire ongoing radical change. And it offers an intimate look at the passion that drives discovery, and a rare glimpse into the competitive, hierarchical world of elite science—and the women who dared to challenge it.
About the Author
Kate Zernike has been a reporter for The New York Times since 2000. She was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for stories about al-Qaeda before and after the 9/11 terror attacks. She was previously a reporter for The Boston Globe, where she broke the story of MIT’s admission that it had discriminated against women on its faculty, on which The Exceptions is based. The daughter and granddaughter of scientists, she is a graduate of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons.
"Striking an expert balance between the big picture and intimate profiles of the women involved, Zernike offers an intriguing and often infuriating glimpse into the rarefied world of higher education. Readers will be fascinated."—Publishers Weekly
“Zernike, a wonderful storyteller, seamlessly weaves together contemporary events, facts and statistics, and telling anecdotes from women who were working in the sciences at that time, recreating for readers an almost unbelievable culture of never-ending microaggressions, sexual harassment, and professional disdain... Zernike's profile of Nancy Hopkins provides brilliant inspiration."—Booklist (starred review)
"A fascinating, heartening account of successful advocacy in the scientific and academic communities… A powerful story of 16 women who ‘upset the usual assumptions about why there were so few women in science and math in the U.S.’”—Kirkus (starred review)
“What Nancy Hopkins achieved is exceptional—in science of course, but more broadly in society. What Kate Zernike has achieved in this brilliant book is also exceptional—a condemnation of the treatment of women in science and a riveting story about the drive to pursue science."—Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Emperor of All Maladies and the #1 New York Times bestseller The Gene
"Kate Zernike broke the end of this story for the Boston Globe in 1999. Now she goes back to tell it from the beginning, and even though you know how it turns out, you'll hang on every word. A blistering, brave, heartbreaking, and heartening account of brilliant women and the world-changing power of sisterhood and science." —Janice P. Nimura, author of The Doctors Blackwell
“A gripping case study of the horrors and triumphs of the gender revolution in science. No matter who you are, be prepared to be transformed by the remarkable life and career of Nancy Hopkins and the MIT 16. The Exceptions will shock (‘never again’ you will repeat, every few pages); equally, it will instill hope from shining examples of the indomitability of the oppressed insisting simply on a life in science.”--Mahzarin R. Banaji, co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People
"A story I wouldn't believe except that it's true, told by the reporter who broke it first. I'm embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about Nancy Hopkins before opening the cover of The Exceptions. Once I started, I couldn't stop. By the end, I thought, there is no stronger antidote to imposter syndrome than knowing someone like you was good enough all along--and that it is the rules that need to change, not the players." -- Angela Duckworth, author of Grit
“A stunning account of discrimination against women scientists based on riveting interviews that reveal disturbing practices and behavior of top male scientists at MIT and elsewhere.”—Kenneth R. Manning, author of Black Apollo of Science
“Two decades ago, MIT recognized the gender inequality in its faculty and publicly began an effort to address the situation. This well researched and well written book tells that story and places it in an historical and national context. Despite our advances in science and technology, our country and our world still have a long way to go in acknowledging the talents, worth, and contributions of women.”—Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams
“Equally gifted as both reporter and storyteller, Kate Zernike has given us a book that is always engaging, at times shocking, and in the end thrilling: a stirring account of the triumph of women scientists—simultaneously brilliant and brave—in their long struggle for full equality. The Exceptions is exceptional.”—Daniel Okrent, author of The Guarded Gate and Last Call
"When, despite talent and tenure, Professor Nancy Hopkins found herself thwarted in her ability to do science at her own institution, she got together with a group of other tenured women scientists and collected data that demonstrated discrimination. They documented the size of men’s and women’s offices, their salaries, and the difference in their committee assignments and course loads. Tenured male professors got help with mortgages to buy houses. The tenured women didn’t know these programs existed. The president of MIT admitted discrimination. It was the start of a new kind of conversation in academic life. The Exceptions is pitch perfect in telling this story as only a first chapter in an ongoing struggle. A page-turner. Poignant. Infuriating. Inspirational. I read it and was reminded that this work needs to be taken up by each new generation of women in the workplace."—Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT; author of Reclaiming Conversation and The Empathy Diaries