September 12 2008
The public is used to stories of jaw-dropping waste - hundred-million-dollar bridges to nowhere - so it's no surprise that a bill for a few million for anti-discrimination workshops elicits little more than yawns. Yet the public should take note of the "Gender Bias Elimination Act," a bill introduced in this Congress and which is sure to come up again, since its implications are bigger than its price tag suggests.
As the media often reports, while women have made big gains in American classrooms, they still lag behind men in some science and math-based fields. This bill is supposed to help address the disparity. Among the bill's findings is that "unintentional biases" and "outmoded institutional structures" are responsible for the relative scarcity of women in science and engineering. It's a claim with considerable power. Clearly discrimination once impeded women's progress in these areas, and the public recoils at the idea that such injustice could continue today.
Importantly, the bill doesn't solely target outright discrimination, but instead uses carefully chosen terms like "unintentional bias" to describe the ills in need of redress. After all, while politically correct bastions like Harvard and Berkley are unlikely candidates for explicit discrimination against women, they'll joyfully engage in self-flagellation over hidden biases that fester within even the noblest institutions.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences (the bill's inspiration) identifies practices that unintentionally discriminate against women. The tenure system, for example, creates unique problems for women who want to start families. Stereotypes hinder women's performance and prospects. Lab-intensive careers make balancing family life difficult. These challenges not only affect female professionals, but may discourage women from pursuing science and math disciplines as students.
There is truth in these charges. Undoubtedly, many university protocols disadvantage women, and probably aren't optimal for generating the best teachers and research, either. Universities ought to evaluate their traditions to see how they can be improved. Yet those who dream of creating a system without any deferential impact on women will be frustrated.
For example, many believed that policies that encourage new fathers to take leave would help level the playing field. Yet research has found that even when men make use of these benefits, they continue working and advancing their careers during their "time off." Female leave-takers, in contrast, actually spend most of their leave caring for newborns. The inescapable problem is that Mother Nature has an explicit bias when it comes to birthing and nursing children. No one has come up with a policy to get around that simple fact.
Grants for workshops to ruminate on the hurdles women face may just be the spring board for a larger effort to attack the enrollment discrepancy. As a National Journal report on the bill explained: " ‘The bill is also intended to provide a foundation for future Title IX lawsuits against the universities,' said one advocate who asked to remain anonymous."
Gender warriors may wish to duplicate their experience with Title IX in sports, but that possibility should give the rest of us pause. Universities eager to avoid Title IX litigation have slashed hundreds of men's teams in order to reach the politically correct balance of male and female athletes. 'This drastically reduces the ability of men to take part in sports like wrestling, gymnastics, track and field, and swimming.
The potential for a similar tact in academia is alarming: Would universities find ways to discourage men from participating in science and engineering programs so they could reach some preordained threshold?
It's certainly a possibility. In fact, efforts to comply with Title IX in the academic arena could go much farther than those in sports have. Since most athletic teams are segregated by sex, universities can boost their number of female athletes by offering additional women-only teams. Universities won't have that option for academics. If workshops and sensitivity trainings don't do the trick, universities may resort to some very heavy-handed tactics - tactics far beyond an "implicit bias" against men - to make the numbers work.
Even the concept's feminist backers should be concerned about such a potential regime, since women account for nearly six in ten undergraduates and dominate many other disciplines. What if men demand similar equity in the rest of academia?
It's in everyone's interests to have a university system that encourages men and women to pursue whatever academic discipline best suits their talents and preferences. To the extent that university practices fail on that measure, they should pursue reforms. Yet these reforms should not be created to reach a politically correct gender balance to appease mettlesome government bureaucrats.
- Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.