Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Title IX and Science Education

New York Times' John Tierney takes a look at what might be the next frontier for Title IX--Science. More specifically, science education at universities.

Before proceeding, I think Title IX did wonders for the higher education of women in this country. Schools accepting federal aid and grants could not discriminate against women and had to make the same accomodations as were made available for men. The purpose of Title IX was holistic, meaning the entire university community was affected. However, when I or other say "Title IX" almost immediately we think of intercollegiate sports. Like just about every other law out there designed to address discrimination of all sorts, racial or gender, Title IX rather quickly became short hand for quotas.

In Title IX's universe, the quota was "how many athletic scholarships" or "athletic programs" were given to women versus men. The fallout quickly became the dismantling of men's teams for wrestling or other generally male sports in favor of women's sports. Schools came to make sure that the number of female athletic scholarships were distributed in proportion to the male/female population on campus. Men's athletic programs were dismantled or radically altered in order to make sure some magic number of parity was attained and maintained, never mind what it did to some male athletes for whom that athletic scholarship represented the only means by which they could go to college. An heaven forbid a single football or basketball scholarship was cut. Instead of adding teams for women, schools looked at Title IX as a zero-sum game, i.e. "We have X number of scholarships to give out and in order for a woman to get one, a man cannot."

Tierney's article says that some Title IX absolutists are looking to do the same thing in science departments. But here is the problem, unlike scholarships, you cannot ensure equal representation in matters like faculty appointments without jeopardizing the quality of the school's academic and teaching reputations. (of course of the two reputations, the former is vastly more important than the latter among many professors). But the female representation of college faculties is far more difficult to rectify that the number of athletic scholarships that a school gives out:
In this debate, neither side doubts that women can excel in all fields of science. In fact, their growing presence in former male bastions of science is a chief argument against the need for federal intervention.

Despite supposed obstacles like “unconscious bias” and a shortage of role models and mentors, women now constitute about half of medical students, 60 percent of biology majors and 70 percent of psychology Ph.D.’s. They earn the majority of doctorates in both the life sciences and the social sciences. They remain a minority in the physical sciences and engineering. Even though their annual share of doctorates in physics has tripled in recent decades, it’s less than 20 percent. Only 10 percent of physics faculty members are women, a ratio that helped prompt an investigation in 2005 by the American Institute of Physics into the possibility of bias.

But the institute found that women with physics degrees go on to doctorates, teaching jobs and tenure at the same rate that men do. The gender gap is a result of earlier decisions. While girls make up nearly half of high school physics students, they’re less likely than boys to take Advanced Placement courses or go on to a college degree in physics.
So how is a college or university supposed to rectify a situation that is the result of hundreds of individual decisions by millions of women made years before they even consider attempting to get an academic position? The short answer, of course, is that they can't.

So what about teh notion that girls are "discouraged" from following careers in science and engineering.
But if you read “The Sexual Paradox,” Susan Pinker’s book about gender differences, you’ll find just the opposite problem.

Ms. Pinker, a clinical psychologist and columnist for The Globe and Mail in Canada (and sister of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist), argues that the campaign for gender parity infantilizes women by assuming they don’t know what they want. She interviewed women who abandoned successful careers in science and engineering to work in fields like architecture, law and education — and not because they had faced discrimination in science.

Instead, they complained of being pushed so hard to be scientists and engineers that they ended up in jobs they didn’t enjoy. “The irony was that talent in a male-typical pursuit limited their choices,” Ms. Pinker says. “Once they showed aptitude for math or physical science, there was an assumption that they’d pursue it as a career even if they had other interests or aspirations. And because these women went along with the program and were perceived by parents and teachers as torch bearers, it was so much more difficult for them to come to terms with the fact that the work made them unhappy.”

“Creating equal opportunities for women does not mean that they’ll choose what men choose in equal numbers,” Ms. Pinker says. “The freedom to act on one’s preferences can create a more exaggerated gender split in some fields.”

Applying Title IX to science was proposed eight years ago by Debra Rolison, a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory. She argued that withholding federal money from “poorly diversified departments” was essential to “transform the academic culture.” The proposal was initially greeted, in her words, with “near-universal horror.”

Some female scientists protested that they themselves would be marginalized if a quota system revived the old stereotype that women couldn’t compete on even terms in science. But the idea had strong advocates, too, and Congress quietly ordered agencies to begin the Title IX compliance reviews in 2006.
I wonder why such a task was undertaken. The words "political correctness" come to mind rather quickly. The fact is that so long as women are not prohibited from following the path they choose, then Title IX will have accomplished its goal. You cannot erase a discrimination that is simply not there. If colleges and universities were not hiring otherwise competent female engineering professors or physicists because they were women, then we would have a different problem. But if the number of such women candidates is much smaller than their male counterparts, is it something that a law can address.

No, and we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking it can.

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