Issue Date: August 24, 2009
Targeting Gender Equity In Science
Having solved all the other pressing problems of the nation, Congress and the Obama Administration seem to be getting serious about guaranteeing that equal numbers of women and men have careers in science, engineering, and mathematics. The blunt instrument they are prepared to use to accomplish this goal is Title IX, the provision in the 1972 civil rights law that forbids discrimination in education by gender.
Evidence for science as a target for gender equalization comes from both a recent White House conference and a hearing of the House Science & Technology Committee. Both events were stacked with presenters calling for greater participation of women in science and engineering, with little discussion about whether there is a need or desire for such a change.
The White House conference celebrated the 37th anniversary of the landmark civil rights law. Hosted by Valerie B. Jarrett, a personal adviser to President Barack Obama, the event featured speakers who vowed to make Title IX the same force for women’s participation in science, engineering, and math education that it has been in athletics. “We expect to see gender parity,” one participant said.
The hearing by the House Subcommittee on Research & Education aimed for the same goal. Witnesses spoke of “gaps” in achievement by girls and women in math and science and urged for more programs and role models to increase female participation. Again, they invoked rigorous application of Title IX to science and math education as the way to make things right.
Talk of applying Title IX to increase the proportion of women studying science and math gets more serious each year, but the need for it is fading. Even Title IX proponents agree that women are already receiving about half the degrees in science awarded by colleges and universities. They also acknowledge that women are receiving about half the degrees in law and medicine. So they have had to search for areas where women are least represented, and their pitch for government interference is based on those fields.
Physics and engineering seem to be the most popular areas for complaint. According to 2005 data from the National Science Foundation, women receive only about 20% of the degrees in these fields each year. But NSF’s 2008 Science & Engineering Indicators report showed that these percentages represent great gains over the past 20 years and that there is no sign that this trend will not continue. The number of women getting a Ph.D. in physics in the U.S., for example, has risen from 91 in 1985 to 200 in 2005, a 120% increase.
NSF data from 2005 also show that women predominate in some areas of science. Women receive 62% of the bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, 52% of the bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, and 78% of the bachelor’s degrees in psychology. Although the Ph.D. percentages are lower, they are rising quickly. For chemistry, the American Chemical Society reports that women received almost 40% of all chemistry doctorates in 2007 (C&EN, Dec. 15, 2008, page 39).
Meanwhile, as the number of women rises in many fields of science, the number of men, specifically men who are U.S. citizens, receiving science degrees is unchanging or declining. According to NSF data, for example, 564 male U.S. citizens received doctorates in physics in 1985, and by 2005 that number had dropped to 447. In psychology, where women dominate, the number of U.S. men getting Ph.D.s fell from 1,395 in 1995 to 1,171 by 2005, a 16% drop.
In chemistry, the numbers are worse. U.S. men received just 719 doctorates in chemistry in 2005, a 34% drop from 1,084 Ph.D.s in 1985, according to NSF data. During the same period, the number of female U.S. citizens getting chemistry doctorates rose from 261 to 412, a 58% jump.
The push to get more women into science is baffling when the greater problem seems to be that men are rejecting the field. No one seems to be asking what is going on in the U.S. education system that is turning boys and young men away from science.
Invoking Title IX for academics may only make matters worse. Given what has happened in university athletics, admittedly a poor comparison but one regularly made at the recent meetings, the prospects are scary: While female participation in sports has risen, some men’s programs have been cut. Quotas have been imposed on universities by court order. How this would play out for science is murky. Would men be told they can’t study computer science because not enough women are studying the subject? Would a university consider dropping electrical engineering from its curriculum because it couldn’t get enough women to enroll and wants to avoid a lawsuit?
Proponents of Title IX would deny these things could happen, but our litigious nation always seems to go down the most demeaning path. Title IX might have been considered necessary nearly 40 years ago, but the world has changed. Imposing such a crude instrument for change in academics is not the way to help young women—or men—make their life choices.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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