Title-Nining Hard Science
On July 15, 2008, John Tierney published an article on his New York Times science blog with the ominous message that federal civil rights regulators are aiming one of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal, Title IX, against some university science departments. Title IX forbids gender discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds, and the science departments in question have fewer women among their students or faculty than complainants say they ought to have.
Until now, Title IX has been used almost entirely against athletic programs, requiring colleges to provide equal resources for men’s and women’s sports teams. The fact that gender disparity exists in science became widely known in 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, impoliticly tried to answer a question about why relatively few women professors at Harvard are in fields like physics, chemistry, and engineering. Summers attributed the disparity to personal choice based on disposition. His words were reasonable, but feminists at Harvard interpreted (or distorted) his comments to imply that women lack aptitude for science. The resulting uproar ultimately caused Summers to be replaced as Harvard’s president by a woman reputed to be a militant feminist.
Disposition or Discrimination?
Reviewing how Title IX investigations work shows why scientists are right to worry that applying Title IX to science will lead to quotas. Perhaps a better way to put the point is that social engineering is the very purpose of invoking Title IX. The scientists’ defense to the charge of discrimination is likely to be that women are relatively scarce in the hard sciences and engineering because qualified women tend to choose other fields, especially social science, medicine, and law. In an online article by Elaine McArdle dated May 15, 2008, the Boston Globe reported favorably on new (and controversial) research claiming that women’s own preferences are the most important factor behind the gender disparities in science and engineering.
This defense is similar to the defense that athletic directors offered when they were first accused of violating Title IX by having fewer sports teams for women than for men. These administrators said that the disparity reflected the fact that fewer women than men were interested in competing in sports. The complainants countered that the low turnout of women was itself the product of discrimination. The administrators may have assumed that women were less inclined to compete in sports than men, and provided fewer resources because of that stereotypical assumption. Until the stereotype about women’s preferences ceased to exist, the institutions were responsible for the pattern of student choices that the stereotype influenced, and hence were guilty of discrimination.
There is every reason to suppose that the regulators will apply similar logic to male-dominated science departments that say that women are freely choosing other disciplines. The regulators think they know what women would be choosing, absent discrimination. So, if women make different choices, the cause must be implicit institutional discrimination, such as not enough role models or a sexist atmosphere. There may be no proof that such problems are more prevalent in engineering departments than in fields in which women are plentiful, but none is needed. The statistical disparity—plus the presumption of discrimination—is all that the Title IX enforcers need.
Of course, the very existence of a gender disparity might motivate some women to choose fields in which they will have plenty of female peers. In any event, the regulators and their allies within the university can make life uncomfortable for any administrator who mounts a vigorous defense of a disparity (a “Summers defense,” someone is sure to call it), and this threat provides a powerful incentive to satisfy the complainants.
What Women Want
Whether or not Title IX enforcement is unfair, it has certainly been effective in sports. That is to say, it has given women’s teams, long marginalized and neglected, more respect and publicity. Even in rough competitive sports, girls are encouraged to take pride in their toughness. It thus seems likely that “Title-Nining” science will produce more female physicists and engineers. (The law has become a verb—like proposing to “nuke” an enemy—just because Title IX’s power is so formidable.)
John Tierney recommends Susan Pinker’s book The Sexual Paradox for those who are skeptical about whether gender disparity in science is an oppression against which all the government’s regulatory firepower should be directed, or an ordinary outcome of free choices made by free people. Pinker, a clinical psychologist and journalist (and sister of Harvard psychology professor and science popularizer Steven Pinker), argues in her book that the campaign for gender parity infantilizes women by assuming that they don’t know what they want. She interviewed women who complained of being pushed so hard to become scientists and engineers that they ended up in jobs they didn’t enjoy. Maybe proponents of gender disparity law need to rediscover the insight that people usually understand their own best interests better than the ideology-driven regulators do.
That feminist academics and their allies in Congress might induce federal agencies to “Title-Nine” science and engineering strikes me as a realization of the mythic struggle between the irresistible force and the immovable object. I wonder if institutional science will muster all its resources to defend itself, or whether the scientists will remember what happened to Larry Summers, and seek a plea bargain.
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“Title-Nining Hard Science” first appeared in the October 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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