May 19 2008
Position Paper No. 608 Studying Women and Science
In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences released a report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, which examined the causes of the different rates of participation among women and men in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic disciplines (STEM).[i] The report explored several potential factors that might contribute to fewer women than men pursuing STEM degrees, but concluded that discrimination was the central impediment to women's progress in these fields. The report called for greater government action and oversight to reverse this trend. The media have reported these findings, and many policymakers have embraced the report and explored legislation to codify the report's recommendations.
Yet policymakers and the public should not simply accept the report's conclusion that discrimination is the primary cause of enrollment differences and should consider the potential pitfalls of greater government involvement in students' decisions about what field to pursue. Innate differences in aptitudes, temperament, and interest likely play a role in leading fewer women than men to pursue and commit to STEM disciplines. Attempts to steer students toward one area of study to achieve a politically correct gender balance would ignore students' true preferences, potentially leaving them worse off.
Greater government intervention to encourage institutions to reach an outcome closer to parity in enrollment in STEM fields could also have a discriminatory impact on men. While policymakers and bureaucrats attempting to institute policies to encourage institutional change would undoubtedly claim not to be creating a "quota" or encouraging the creation of different expectations for male and female students, the experience with the use of Title IX in the athletic arena should serve as a warning to the public. Title IX has encouraged schools to embrace a quota mentality in college athletics, leading many schools to eliminate men's teams in order to reduce the number of male athletes so that men's and women's participation rates are more equal. If this approach is applied to academic subjects, it could adversely impact students and scholarship.
Even those who champion women's interests alone should be concerned about the potential for Title IX's application to academy. After all, women now account for six in ten undergraduate students, and earn the overwhelming majority of degrees in biology, psychology, and much of the humanities. If Title IX is applied to STEM, it would be reasonable to assume that Title IX also would have to be applied to other academic areas. As a result, women may find themselves discouraged from pursuing disciplines that, for a host of reasons, they have traditionally found most attractive.
To the extent that there are barriers to women pursuing STEM, including discrimination against women and stereotypes that deter women from pursuing these fields, individual institutions are best suited to counteract these problems. Numerous nonprofit organizations reach out to young women to encourage them to pursue degrees in STEM fields. Individual schools are attempting to reach out to prospective female students as well as find ways to make STEM departments more hospitable to female students. These are the best ways to alleviate social pressures without undermining the independence of the academy.
[i] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2007.