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The Exceptions

Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science

Read by Kathe Mazur

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About The Book

A New York Times Notable Book

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.

Reading Group Guide

More Praise for The Exceptions

“[A] hopeful, uplifting account.”

The Boston Globe

“Zernike adds gripping daily life details that make Hopkins’s story come deeply alive. . . . One puts down the book inspired by the women’s grit, tenacity, and brilliance.”

Science Magazine

“Zernike’s account details more than just the journey of one scientist—it provides a deeply researched dive into the history of gender discrimination in US higher education. . . . Even though the main events transpired decades ago, they remain remarkably relevant today given the sexism, racism, and other injustices that still permeate academia.”


“In intimate detail, Zernike narrates Hopkins’s entire journey—from uncertain undergraduate in 1963 to determined postdoc to innovative cancer researcher and admired professor.”

—Los Angeles Times

“An intimate, behind-the-scenes account . . . Zernike tells her story with careful pacing and precise detail, illustrating each injustice with jaw-dropping quotes and solid facts.”

The New York Times

“The book is an important read for anyone who wants to better understand the dynamics of discrimination in any workplace.”

—Associated Press

“Zernike tells this story masterfully. . . . The Exceptions . . . brings the discrimination to the fore, but in describing the tenacity of Hopkins and her peers, it ends up being just as inspirational.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“[Nancy Hopkins’s] scientific achievements—which Ms. Zernike presents in straightforward language that nonscientists can easily understand—were more than impressive.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Zernike, a wonderful storyteller, seamlessly weaves together contemporary events, facts and statistics, and telling anecdotes. . . . 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.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“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

The Exceptions is a perfect marriage of compelling material and formidable journalist.”

—Frank Bruni, author of The Beauty of Dusk

“A gripping case study of the horrors and triumphs of the gender revolution in science.”

—Mahzarin R. Banaji, coauthor 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.”

—Angela Duckworth, author of Grit

“Brilliant . . . a riveting story about the drive to pursue science.”

—Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Song of the Cell

“A stunning account of discrimination against women scientists.”

—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 a historical and national context.”

—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. The Exceptions is exceptional.”

—Daniel Okrent, author of The Guarded Gate and Last Call

“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 at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation and The Empathy Diaries

This reading group guide for The Exceptions includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Kate Zernike takes us through the life of reluctant activist Nancy Hopkins, whose work at MIT prompted a nationwide reckoning with the pervasive sexism in science.

For years, Nancy and her female colleagues explained away the discrimination they experienced as the exception, not the rule. Only when they came together and compared stories of underpayment, denial of credit, advancement, and equal resources did they recognize what they needed to fight against. And they risked their careers to start that fight. Learn what happened and how these women became role models for generations of women.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. There are several instances where Nancy Hopkins experiences physical assault (for example, on page 21, when Francis Crick gropes her, and on page 34, when she’s in the hospital). How was she able to continue working in a male-dominated workspace after these incidents?

2. On page 61, Nancy recalls that her boss, Mark Ptashne, “had told her that she was smarter than any other woman at Harvard and at least half the men.” Make note of the backhanded compliments that Nancy receives throughout the book. Discuss how her male colleagues and supervisors use these kinds of observations to pit the women against each other. Do you think that’s intentional? Why or why not?

3. Many of the women highlighted in The Exceptions who came before Nancy—Rosalind Franklin, Dr. Ruth Hubbard, and Barbara McClintock—experienced humiliating discrimination, including lack of acknowledgment for their critical scientific contributions. How did each of them handle this differently? Discuss the differences in their careers and personal lives.

4. Nancy’s marriage to Brooke is complicated by his appearance of being supportive and progressive, but also feeling threatened by her expertise in a field he does not understand (see page 77). Compare and contrast Brooke’s attitude toward Nancy with that of Gene Dresselhaus toward Millie.

5. “Mary-Lou suspected that her professors were telling her about Barbara McClintock because Barbara McClintock was the only female scientist they could think of” (page 86). How important is it to have role models you can relate to in your field? Are there career paths that you chose not to take because you didn’t know anyone like you in those fields or positions?

6. What similarities are there in how Mary-Lou Pardue and Nancy Hopkins approached their early careers in science?

7. Throughout The Exceptions, there are people (usually men) in positions of leadership who approach their work in a more equitable fashion (Joe Gall and Jim Watson). Do you think this is learned behavior from their education and backgrounds, or does it have more to do with their character?

8. On pages 146–47, Zernike outlines a promotional brochure that the MIT alumnae association sends out to 10,500 girls across the nation. What picture do the quotations on the brochure paint of MIT? How would a brochure like this be received today by high school students in your circles?

9. On pages 153–54, Nancy experiences challenges as a result of the common lab space initiative at MIT. Too often, efforts toward equality in a workspace don’t help the people who most need them. What are efforts in your workplace that have gone wrong in a similar way?

10. In a letter addressed to a woman in MIT’s administrative office, Nancy notes, “You are quite right that it is probably the tremendous stress of demanding their share that causes women to retreat too soon and thus to almost invariably end up with less” (page 245). How does this ring true for Nancy in her career at MIT? How does it continue to ring true today?

11. Nancy’s discovery that the male faculty members have almost double the lab space she does (page 249) compels her to finally start fighting back. Why do you think it took her so long to see the sexism in her field? How much of it is due to gaslighting from male colleagues and supervisors?

12. Near the end of the book (page 350), Nancy stirs up a new round of press, asking the questions “Were women in short supply at the highest levels of science because they were not good at it and did not like it? Or because they had repeatedly been told that they were not good at it and did not like it?” What other areas of expertise could you assign that second question to today?

13. If people in your book club also work in STEM careers, ask them what they’ve seen or experienced in the workplace. Is discrimination like what Nancy experienced prevalent in their workplace? If so, how do they think it could change?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read about women in science for two months of book club! After you finish The Exceptions, read Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Compare and contrast the life of Nancy Hopkins with Elizabeth Zott.

2. Watch the short documentary The Uprising from MIT Press. After you’ve finished, look up the women featured in the documentary and share with the group about the important discoveries and innovations they’ve each made in their respective fields.

3. Before you start reading The Exceptions, read the original MIT report in the faculty newsletter, “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” and discuss the data presented. Does any of it stick out to you more than the rest?

Q & A with Kate Zernike

(*excerpted from an interview published in Shelf Awareness, October 11, 2022)

Shelf Awareness: What led you to expand on your original piece for the Boston Globe?

Kate Zernike: Some stories stick with you longer than others, and the story about these women—who are brilliant and accomplished and showed such ingenuity in getting MIT to do what it did—never left me. The idea to do a book started in January 2018, when Nancy had retired from MIT and was wondering what to do with the volumes of papers she’d kept from this time. The #MeToo movement was surging, and all the discussions about sexual harassment made me think about the more subtle discrimination the MIT women had identified. It took some time to convince Nancy to let me see the papers, but once I saw them, I realized that they could help tell this intimate story of what it’s like to be a professional woman and to experience bias—especially at a time when we like to think we’ve cured it.

SA: “Their experience became a metric for how I thought about my own life and the questions and debates around women that I would write about over the next two decades.” How did this inform your thinking about your own life?

KZ: I’m trying to avoid a long answer here because there is so much to say! One of the reasons this story rocketed around universities and the world the way it did was that the women identified unconscious bias, which in 1999 was still a new idea. And I remember being struck that this marginalization, as the women described it, happened not in the early part of their careers but as they got older. It wasn’t enough to open up these fields to women, you had to make sure they had the same opportunities and resources as their careers developed, that they got credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I was early in my own career at the time, so this made me think about all the subtle ways we still treat women differently and talk and write about them differently. I knew what to watch out for, and I wondered how it would play out for me. I wasn’t paranoid; it was more that I was curious. And aware.

SA: Reading about Nancy’s dilemma at having to choose between science or family, with her biological clock ticking, seems both old-fashioned and very now. Women who dared complain about, say, tenure or pay or attribution were told that they had to work harder and better than men. This doesn’t seem like it has changed much, particularly for BIPOC professionals.

KZ: It is both very old-fashioned and very now. That was one of the most fascinating and frustrating things about researching this book. The “choice” between career and a family doesn’t really feel like a choice because, no matter what you choose, you feel you are letting someone down, maybe worst of all yourself. Or you try to do it all, only to realize no one can. And decades of research have confirmed what many long suspected, that people who don’t look like those who’ve occupied these jobs for most of history—in most professions, white men—still have to work harder to prove they belong. Women are judged more critically, whether it’s men or women doing the judging. The challenge is especially steep for women in math and science, partly because we assume that those fields require genius—this raw brilliance—and “genius” is a word we more often associate with men.

SA: As I read The Exceptions, and Nancy’s struggles for acceptance, for credit, I got angrier and angrier and wanted to rush ahead to the “happy” ending. I also got impatient with Nancy’s recalcitrance in naming her problem. She was so reluctant to think her sex had anything to do with it.

KZ: You are not the only person to feel angry! Or impatient. But for Nancy, to speak up was to make herself look difficult. She’d seen what happened to women who were branded “difficult.” And she, like the other women, really wanted to believe in the meritocracy. Most of us do. And Nancy thought it was reasonable because the women’s movement was in full swing and affirmative action had opened so many doors for women. She didn’t want to believe anyone was biased against her or that she needed special treatment; she believed in herself. She started to see that other women were being discriminated against before she could see that she herself was being discriminated against. She thought she was the exception—just one of the ways that word kept coming up. And I might have hurried more to the happy ending, but I thought it was important to show her reluctance to admit that she was being discriminated against. And how much time she lost to trying to make things work despite the discrimination.

SA: After her lunch with Mary-Lou Pardue, I began to get excited. Finally! After twenty years! So it was amusing to read that Nancy, in the meeting with the first twelve women, was worried that she’d be seen as too radical.

KZ: Yes, after twenty years, there was the payoff! But almost all those women were worried about being seen as too radical. They wanted to be recognized as the accomplished scientists they were, not seen as troublemakers. They worried that a group of female professors seen huddling on campus would arouse suspicion. And the men did think Nancy was too radical, a troublemaker. That was one of the important things about the group of sixteen women. It was easier to be radical in numbers.

SA: Lotte Bailyn, the first woman faculty member at MIT Sloan, said, “The consequences of these more subtle forms of discrimination are equally real and equally demoralizing.” It seems like we often equate sex discrimination with sexual coercion.

KZ: Lotte’s writing about work and women, starting in the 1960s, is so profound for me. She recognized early on so many of the challenges that we’re still trying to work through. And she was revolutionary in 1999 with this line about the subtlety of sexual discrimination. This was one of the things that held up Nancy’s understanding of her own situation, she thought that sex discrimination had to involve sex or sexual coercion. And sexual coercion is more dramatic, and more obvious. The more subtle discrimination Lotte describes here, and that the women identified at MIT, is more pervasive and more insidious.

About The Author

Photograph by Harry Zernike

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.

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Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (February 28, 2023)
  • Runtime: 14 hours and 30 minutes
  • ISBN13: 9781797137155

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Raves and Reviews

"Kathe Mazur’s assured performance enhances the author’s in-depth account of 16 female tenured scientists who challenged the pervasive gender-based discrimination taking place at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1990s. In this compelling production, which has the life and work of Dr. Nancy Hopkins at its center, Mazur’s voice guides listeners through a “thousand tiny cuts” spanning disciplines, degree programs, and institutions throughout the twentieth century. Dr. Hopkins’s gradual journey to awareness mirrors those of her many contemporaries, and their frustration and internal struggles are evident in Mazur’s voice. Her well-modulated delivery of scientific discoveries in genetics and molecular biology makes the concepts easier to absorb. This is a galvanizing account for listeners who advocate equity, diversity, and inclusion in all professions."

– AudioFile Magazine

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  • ALA Notable Book

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