What MIT Media Lab's funding scandal says about sexism in tech

The MIT Media Lab accepted — and covered up — millions of dollars in donations from billionaire sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. While one institution is at the centre of the scandal, the issues at the core of the controversy are prevalent across the tech industry, experts say.

Lab's funding by a convicted sex offender underlines issues prevalent across the industry

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., is a renowned educational institution. But the school's acceptance of funding from convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein shows how deep the problems of systemic sexism and greed are in the STEM fields. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press)

How does a renowned educational institution dubbed "the Future Factory" reconcile its role as both an influential pipeline to the tech industry and a school whose leadership aligned itself with a known sexual predator?

It's a question that staff and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are grappling with, after multiple reports revealed that the MIT Media Lab accepted — and covered up — millions of dollars in donations from billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted criminal who served time for procuring the services of an underage girl for prostitution. Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in August after an apparent suicide while awaiting trial on new sex charges.

But while the Media Lab is at the centre of the scandal, experts point out, the issues at the core of the controversy are prevalent across the tech industry.

According to a 2018 report from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, women in STEM fields in that country endure the highest rate of sexual harassment of any profession outside the military. And the policies meant to combat the problem protect institutions, not victims, the report said.

When it comes to systemic sexism, "It's well known that the problems are everywhere," said Imogen Coe, a professor in the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University in Toronto. "And the more there is at stake — particularly in terms of money flowing in support of research and development, and prestige — the more there is to hide and cover up." 

Even though Epstein was listed as "disqualified" in MIT's official donor database, the Media Lab continued to accept gifts from him, marking his contributions as anonymous so as to avoid disclosing their full extent. If faculty members expressed disapproval of the transactions and the school's relationship with the sex offender, efforts were made to keep them in the dark.

When the coverup was revealed, some prominent researchers went so far as to sever ties with the lab, out of protest.

In announcing his resignation Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media, wrote, "The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It's hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship."

Epstein gave millions of dollars to the MIT Media Lab — donations the lab covered up by marking them as anonymous. (New York State Sex Offender Registry/The Associated Press)

The next prominent individual to resign was Joi Ito, the lab's director and the one directly responsible for accepting Epstein's money.

Though Ito had admitted to having invited Epstein to the lab, to visiting "several" of his residences and to accepting money for personal ventures as well as for the school, Ito originally stated that he would stay at the lab to "begin a process of restorative healing," despite calls from the community that he step down.

'International issue'

One of those calls came from Media Lab grad student Arwa Mboya. 

"This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women's bodies and lives," Mboya wrote in an article in MIT's student newspaper The Tech at the end of August, before an exposé by famed #metoo journalist Ronan Farrow appeared in the New Yorker.

Another prominent researcher, the computer scientist Richard Stallman, was pressured to resign from the school over comments he made that seemed to excuse Epstein's behaviour, such as his statement that "it is morally absurd to define 'rape' in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17." He stepped down earlier this month.

While Epstein was consulted on how his funds would be used, women were excluded from his events. According to reports, Epstein would hold "billionaire dinners" and invite the star researchers and faculty from the school — or rather, the male star researchers and faculty.

Sarah Szalavitz, a social designer and external fellow at the MIT Media Lab, said in the New York Times, "It's not a grand conspiracy. It's just a fact: When you have an event on a private beach owned by a sex trafficker, women don't get invited. They don't get invited to the private island. They don't get invited to the sex trafficker's conferences. They don't get invited to speak."

Not a 'pipeline problem'

The funding scandal puts the lie to all of the industry's initiatives to bring more diversity into the stream of STEM fields — what's known as the "pipeline." Simply filling the ranks with more women is misguided, Coe said, because it still puts the onus on women to "break into" the field as opposed to putting pressure on the establishment to be more welcoming. 

"By claiming it's a pipeline problem, the responsibility for who has to do the work gets shifted away from those who are actually creating the culture," Coe said.

Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, admitted to having invited Epstein to the lab, to visiting 'several' of his residences and to accepting money for personal ventures as well as for the school. He resigned in September. (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

And as the controversy showed, women are still at a disadvantage.

"Those with power and privilege absolve themselves" of responsibility for their own role in sustaining the sexist culture.

"More needs to be done," said Canadian aerospace engineer Natalie Panek. She said she is often asked what advice she would give to women who are deterred from STEM.

"This question needs to be reframed as: How can we dismantle the systemic barriers that drive women out of STEM?"

The onus is not on women, she said, but on the institutions and people in positions of power "to make STEM environments more inclusive, and to ensure there is transparency in processes and decision-making."

As for how the Media Lab reconciles its role in shaping the future, Myoba wrote, "We must set an example of leadership that is truly ethical, inclusive, equitable and focused on creating a standard that puts human rights at the centre."

There is an important lesson for Canadian universities in all of this, too, said Coe.

"Chasing money and prestige at any cost means exactly that — at a cost," she said, "and that cost can be people's lives." 


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.