May 15 2008
Graduation season is upon us. In the coming weeks thousands of American students will celebrate their accomplishments, reflect on four years' of memories, don silly robes and hats, and graduate from college. The majority of those students will be women, who nationally make up 6 in 10 college students.
Women have made tremendous strides in all aspects of life over the last few decades, but perhaps none is as pronounced as in higher education. In 1970, only 42 percent of undergraduate students were female. Women now dominate campus life, raking in the majority of bachelor's and master's degrees awarded each year. But those tremendous accomplishments won't stop those dedicated to convincing women they are victims.
The latest charge from the gender equity crowd is that women face widespread discrimination in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). They say government action (in the form of increased Title IX enforcement) is needed to correct this imbalance.
Much of the hysteria can be traced back to a 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering looked at the different rates of participation between the sexes in STEM fields and concluded that discrimination was the key factor holding women back. The report has been taken as gospel since its publication, but policymakers need to take a closer look at the potential causes of this gender disparity before jumping to "fix" the discrimination problem.
Most likely several factors are at play. Unfortunately, some of the likely factors are considered so taboo in the modern academic environment that few people will openly discuss them. Larry Summers came under tremendous fire at Harvard when he suggested that innate biological differences between the sexes might be a factor. Summer's detractors may have been offended by his comments, but that doesn't mean that there isn't an element of truth in there. There is a growing body of research revealing biological differences that affect how men and women learn and process information. Women also tend to profess different interests and priorities. The key question is how big of an impact do those differences have on the disparity in STEM fields.
At this point all potential factors should be on the table for serious inquiry, including differences in aptitude, learning styles, temperament, interest, work-life priorities, and discrimination. To jump ahead and label discrimination the key factor is, at best, intellectually lazy and, at worst, purposefully misleading. I, for one, find it incredibly unlikely that discrimination is the key factor. Women have broken down countless barriers in recent history, including "boys clubs" like business school and law school. Are we really to believe that the last unbreakable bastion of sexism in the academy is being led by scientists in white lab coats?
Even if there is a problem that needs fixing, politicians should pause before looking to Title IX as the solution. Currently, Title IX enforcement is most visible in college athletics where it is lauded for increasing female athletic participation over the past 35 years. But the successes of Title IX have often come with a serious price tag. Too often, Title IX gets used as a weapon against male athletes in the form of cut teams and roster caps rather than a positive force for women's athletics. The problem lies in the controversial proportionality measurement-the gender breakdown of athletes must match the gender breakdown of the student body. That leaves schools with two options: recruiting more female athletes or cutting opportunities for men. Schools often go for the latter. It's hard to see how that sort of quota mentality would benefit women in STEM fields.
Universities should aim to ensure that any remaining barriers to fields of studies are removed so that students are free to choose their preferred area of study. Yet any effort to create a politically correct gender balance is a misuse of power that disserves students.