At a White House conference earlier this summer observing the 40th anniversary of Title IX — the 1972 law prohibiting gender discrimination in federally supported educational programs and activities — the talk was not so much about college athletics as about the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math.
Women, according to the prevailing wisdom at the conference, are "underrepresented" in these fields. More needs to be done to boost their participation. Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Leigh Cohon called the current situation "a national crisis."
But a profession should be a matter of personal choice, not something the government dictates. Title IX may have helped open doors for some women. What they do when they get inside should be up to them.
Today, roughly an equal proportion of women and men have some college education (17 percent each), an associate's degree (10 percent of women and 8 of percent men) or a master's degree (9 percent of women, 7 percent of men).
The proportion of women and men with bachelors, professional, and doctoral degrees also is a statistical dead-heat, with less than a single percentage-point advantage for men. Title IX activists ignore this parity and now charge that bias is responsible for women not earning the "right" kinds of advanced degrees.
"In many cases, women still lag behind men in earning doctoral and professional degrees, particularly in nontraditional disciplines like math and science," according the National Women's Law Center. "Women receive, for example, only 18 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees and 12 percent of doctoral engineering degrees," NWLC claims. NWLC charges that this is due to the "hostile environment many face in these fields."
The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education concedes that women earn about half the bachelor's and postgraduate degrees in biology, psychology and chemistry. But it blames gender bias for the fact that women earn fewer advanced degrees in engineering and computer science, fields that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects to grow 10 percent and 22 percent, respectively, over the next decade.
These high-growth fields are attracting significant attention from state and national policymakers hoping to reboot the economy and increase America's global competitiveness. Yet engineering and computer science together represent just 14 percent of all doctorates awarded in 2008-09. Nor are these the highest-growth fields.
Women earned the majority of doctorates in 10 of 21 doctoral fields included in the BLS occupational growth projections for the next decade. Men earned the majority of doctorates in 11 fields, but the disparity comes only because two men and no women earned doctorates in "communications technologies" in 2008-09.
More significantly, the fields in which women chose to earn the majority of doctorates are also the professions projected to grow the most. These include the top-ranked profession, healthcare and related clinical sciences (29 percent growth projected), as well as public administration and social services (24 percent growth).
Other fields in which women earned the majority of doctorates have projected growth rates of 10 percent to 18 percent, including visual and performing arts, biological and biomedical sciences, psychology, education, library science, communications and journalism, security and protective services, and architecture and related services.
On average, the doctoral fields women choose are projected to grow 17 percent, compared to a 16 percent average in the fields where men earn the majority of doctorates.
So it appears that women are basing their decisions on hard-nosed economic reality.
Title IX and its supporters need to recognize that life is full of statistical imbalances, most of which have nothing to do with institutional bias and everything to do with personal preferences. If women choose to go into education or medicine, rather than physics, why should Washington question them?
Forty years of Title IX artificially leveling the athletic and academic playing fields is enough. We don't need government meddling in career choices under the guise of "gender equality."
Vicki E. Alger, Ph.D., is a research fellow at The Independent Institute (www.independent.org), Oakland, CA, and director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women's Forum.