October 10 2013
Women have long out-paced men in academia, yet they remain underrepresented in certain areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (commonly referred to as the STEM fields). Since STEM graduates not only have more job opportunities, but also higher paying jobs, many see boosting women’s participation in these disciplines as a key to reaching gender equality. There has been no dearth of public and private efforts to try to “solve” the problem. And the latest to get in the game is libertarian billionaire David Koch, who last week pledged $20 million to MIT to build a top-of-the-line childcare facility in an effort to attract and retain more women in the STEM fields.
Mr. Koch – while well intentioned – is on a fool’s errand. It is unlikely that increasing the availability of high-end daycare will actually encourage more women to engage in science degrees at MIT. More fundamentally, such “solutions” ignore the real reason fewer women pursue STEM degrees, which is largely a function of biological differences. Bottom line: this isn’t a problem we’re likely to “solve.”
To start, a $20 million facility seems over-the-top. Demand for childcare is the issue – not demand for 5-star childcare resorts. MIT is located just a train stop away from Harvard, and both universities provide access to numerous childcare options, including assistance and scholarship information, right on their website. What’s more online sites like Sittercity and Care.com have exploded in recent years, giving working moms far more opportunities to find affordable, safe, and even part-time child care than ever before.
A closer look at the composition of both MIT’s undergraduate and graduate populations gives us a little more perspective. In 2008 nearly half the undergraduate student body was female, and 31 percent of graduate students. Many of the disciplines dominated by women include architecture, civil and environmental engineering, as well as brain and cognitive science. Still, on balance, even at MIT, female undergraduates gravitate toward the humanities, arts, social sciences, and philosophy. And similarly in the graduate school female students are inclined toward the ill-termed “soft-sciences” like biology.
In other words, attracting talented women to MIT hasn’t been the challenge; what they study when they get there is. And fancy childcare won’t impact that determination.
What Mr. Koch overlooks is that men and women are different. They have different strengths, preferences, and aptitudes. And it’s revealed at even the highest levels of academic and professional success. Building a luxury childcare facility may attract some women who were considering where to pursue their graduate research or accept a faculty position; but more likely it will just be an added perk to women and men already at the university.
This is not to suggest that women can’t pursue math or science – plenty do. But Mr. Koch has fallen for the line that “if only we had better childcare” we could achieve parity in the sciences, and then women and men would be equal. But Mr. Koch should recognize, as he does when it comes to other policy areas like tax law and government regulation, that the Left’s definition of equality mistakenly focuses on outcomes rather than opportunities
Do vestiges of sexism linger in certain academic disciplines? Certainly. But are widespread discrimination and the shortage of quality childcare really driving women away from STEM fields? No.
In fact, let’s remember roughly 50 percent of medical school students are female; and veterinary classes are (on average) comprised of 75 percent women. It’s only in certain subsets of the hard sciences – such as computer programming and engineering – where women are more dramatically underrepresented. But even in nuclear science and engineering, a quarter of the class is made up of female undergraduates. As Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute reminds us in her book, The Science on Women and Science, "the physical sciences are the exception, not the rule."
I encourage Mr. Koch to dive a little deeper – he’ll see there is a robust debate among academics like Simon-Baron Cohen and Richard Haier about social, cultural and biological gender differences that play a role in men’s and women’s choices.
Recognizing sex differences doesn't diminish the value of female role models, for instance; nor does it mean we shouldn't applaud universities or businesses (like the organization I run, the Independent Women’s Forum) that provide flexible work policies in order to attract female employees. But too often feminists and progressives have tunnel vision. The conversation about the shortage of women in STEM fields hasn't evolved since Congress first enacted Title IX. And now they’ve managed to secure $20 million dollars from David Koch.
The reality is Koch’s lavish childcare center will certainly be wonderful, but it would have been better to have an honest conversation about the educational and professional choices women are making today. Before we throw tens of millions of dollars down the drain, we should ask ourselves: is gender parity in every academic discipline necessary to have gender equality?
I’m fairly confident it’s not.