Could Title IX help women in science as well as women athletes?

The year my aunt Joan graduated from high school, Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972, the most famous section of which may be Title IX, which sought, among other goals, to guarantee high school and college athletes like Joan had the same opportunities as their male counterparts. For Joan, it worked well. By 1976, she had earned her first Olympic medal in rowing, the first year women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The women in my family--my younger aunt Carol as well as my sister Stacy--are athletes who have benefited tremendously from Title IX during high school and beyond.

Which makes me wonder: What if Title IX, which was intended to cover all aspects of education--

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

--had been applied more rigorously to science education when we all were girls and young women? Might I have chosen the more lucrative Ph.D. in materials science over my unmarketable doctorate in cultural studies?

Last June, then-candidate Barack Obama noted,

Thirty-six years ago today, America took a bold step forward on the long march toward justice and equality when Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, banning gender discrimination in all education programs that receive federal money. When Title IX was passed, many schools had formal or informal policies that suggested no young women need apply. High school girls were routinely barred from vocational education classes. Girls who wanted to play sports were told it was too dangerous, too unfeminine.

In an October 2008 response to questions posed by the Association of Women in Science, Obama wrote (PDF),

Women are significantly underrepresented in the STEM workforce, and especially in the leadership positions in research and academia. We need women in leadership roles both for their contribution and for the message of encouragement and opportunity that their presence sends to our daughters. We support a range of proactive measures that will open opportunities in science to women, such as requiring minority and female representation on government panels developing innovation and competitiveness strategies, and establishing mentoring programs to support women and underrepresented groups in STEM education programs ­ two measures that I helped pass as part of the America COMPETES Act. We also support improved educational opportunities for all students, increased responsibilities and accountability for those receiving federal research funding, equitable enforcement of existing laws such as Title IX, continuation and strengthening of programs aimed at broader engagement in the STEM disciplines, full funding for the America COMPETES Act, and increased funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Yesterday, ethicist, philosopher, and boys' rights activist Christina Hoff Sommers mocked Obama's stance when in a Washington Post op-ed she wrote, "What's good for women's basketball will be good for nuclear physics."

Hoff Sommers opines that feminists unfairly criticized then-Harvard president Larry Summers, who, in Hoff Sommers's telling, "drew a correlation between the number of women in the sciences and gender differences implied in math and science test data." In reality, Larry Summers's comments transcended such observation. In January 2005, Summers expressed the opinion that "on many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability--there is relatively clear evidence that. . .there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population." He argued that there are some traits, such as the desire to nurture, that are inherently female, and others that are inherently male, such as a talent for science. Summers said that "the differing variances," coupled with women’s failure to work the 80-hour weeks required to secure high-profile positions in American science, accounted for women’s equal lack of representation in the scientific workforce. Summers insinuated as well that not only are women with children not able to work such hours, but also that even the most intelligent women show a disinclination "to do high-powered intense work."

Summers later apologized for his comments, writing that "The many compelling e-mails and calls that I have received have made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers. They have also powerfully underscored the imperative of providing strong and unequivocal encouragement to girls and young women interested in science."

Hoff Sommers closes her article with this warning and question:

Activist leaders of the Title IX campaign are untroubled by this question. Some seem to relish the idea of starkly disrupting what they regard as the excessively male and competitive culture of academic science. American scientific excellence, though, is an invaluable and irreplaceable resource. The fields that will be most affected -- math, engineering, physics and computer science -- are vital to the economy and national defense. Is it wise, to say nothing of urgent, for the president and Congress to impose an untested, undebated gender parity policy at this time?

(Want more? Hoff Sommers also wrote about this issue last fall.)

Here's my primary problem with Hoff Sommers's analysis: It assumes women's participation in science dilutes, rather than enriches and challenges (and thereby strengthens), scientific research and endeavor. Yet in those sciences where women have achieved parity, and even in pockets of male-dominated sciences where women have made inroads, women have pushed the fields forward. Jane Gooddall, Biruté Galdikas, and Dian Fossey changed the way primatologists studied their subject, pushing for long-term field studies over observation of primates in captivity. Alice Eastwood, Agnes Chase, and other women raised the profile of, and blazed new paths for, women in scientific botany and horticulture. Botany has never been the same (thank goodness). Margaret Morse Nice was the first to conceptualize territoriality in bird nesting, and according to Margaret Rossiter's book Women Scientists in America, Nice's own experiences with child-rearing strongly influenced her as she founded the field of animal behavior studies (vol. 1, p. 276). In design engineering, Joyce Fletcher has documented in her book Disappearing Acts that women scientists tend to be mutually empowering with both men and women workers--a sharp contrast to all the ethnographies, anecdotes, and popular depictions of science that emphasize its competitive nature and the individual heroism of its most famously successful (read: male) practitioners.

If you need more evidence, check out both volumes of Rossiter's fabulous study Women Scientists in America, which provides both quantitative and qualitative evidence of women's struggles in, and field-changing contributions to, science.

My own research has focused on women working in natural history museums between 1875 and 1950. Again and again, I have found evidence of women building networks--of men and women, but most noteworthy was the inclusion of women--to democratize access to, and the practice of, science. They brought more perspectives--more brains, if we must be crass--into science, and science and the American people have benefited tremendously from their efforts. I fail to see how making 21st-century science more accessible to women is a danger, as Hoff Sommers claims, to national defense or to the economy.

As is too frequently the case, when I searched the blogosphere for commentary on Hoff Sommers's editorial, most of those commenting on the story were male--and agreed with Hoff Sommers's conclusions. They deserve a closer look and a response.

Hans Bader worries "The result [of enforcing Title IX in the sciences] could be a substantial reduction in the number of scientists graduating from America’s colleges and universities."

What's with the wild conjecturing? While many universities have interpreted Title IX to mean they must enforce parity of funding in athletics and thus have cut funding to some men's teams, I have yet to see statistics that suggest that fewer men are pursuing athletics because of Title IX.

Richard Whitmire of Why Boys Fail writes,

I’m greatly in favor of boosting the number of women earning advanced degrees in the science — given the campus gender gaps, it should be considered a top economic priority — but I doubt sexism in college engineering departments is a major player. For a moment, just try to imagine the magnitude of the conspiracy that would entail. In my observation, young women superbly prepared in high school for careers in math and science are setting aside those majors soon after arriving on campus, long before crusty old male department heads appear on the scene.

Here's the problem: It's not just the crusty old male department heads who are off-putting. It's the middle school and high school teachers who fail to hold girls' interest in science and technology. It's parents who dissuade their daughters from entering fields where they would have to compete with men who have a social advantage and, in many cases, white privilege. It's also the young guys hanging out in computer science forums who insist that women's brains are wired differently than men's and that's why women don't want to enter science and engineering. (To which women in the forums inevitably reply: No, it's because of dolts like you that we don't go into engineering.) There isn't an organized conspiracy to keep women out of science--and I don't think anyone seriously believes there is--but there is plenty that engineering departments could do to make the classroom, lab, hallways, and departmental social occasions more welcoming to women.

One man, TheBell, unpacks Sommers's characterization of Title IX as the death knell of men's sports in high schools and colleges:

Sommers and others are correct about a detrimental tendency toward male athletics but this is neither across the board nor due to Title IX alone. Rather it is the devastation of a perfect storm created when the irresistible force of civil rights advocacy meets the immovable object of big money sports.

Unwilling to make even modest cuts in revenue-generating programs, such as football and basketball, many schools choose instead to make draconian cuts in less popular men’s sports, such as wrestling, track and field, swimming, and tennis, to pay for new women’s programs. As a result, the average number of available sports programs has increased for women but fallen for men since Title IX’s advent. This is a choice by school administrators and not necessarily one in the best interest of either male or female students.

Yet in the end TheBell agrees with Sommers:

Sommers is probably right and Obama probably wrong in disparaging Title IX as an ideal tool to help solve our nation’s current math/science gap. Forcing increased opportunities for female participation will do little when the current low participation seems as much a product of female preference as it does male sexism.

Female preference for what? I think the problem isn't that women prefer the subject matter of the humanities and social sciences. It's that they prefer an atmosphere that welcomes them--an environment built by people who believe that many women do genuinely enjoy the STEM disciplines.

Paul Mirengoff is worried about caps on male participation and a dilution of competition in science:

The comparison between female participation in college athletics and female participation in science and engineering programs is beyond specious. In college athletics there are two distinct sets of teams -- men's teams and the women's teams. Men's programs compete with women's programs for resources (a competition that Title IX seeks to control), but men and women do not compete for slots on the same teams.

In graduate engineering programs (for example), the tracks are the same for both genders. Thus, men and woman are in direct competition for the same slots. If the government wants to control that competition, it must override decisions as to who the best qualified competitors are. The analogy in a sports context would be requiring men's basketball teams to include a certain number of women.

The other key distinction between sports and science/engineering is that, in sports, participation is an important end in itself. This is inherent in the nature of sports, which have always been linked to recreation and fitness.

Is participation in science not also inherently beneficial in many ways, assuming the science is ethical?

I sense fear in Mirengoff's statement about "direct competition for the same slots." This is the same rhetoric used by those who currently dominate those "slots" anytime any proposal that smacks of affirmative action or remediation pops up. And yet, as a joint statement (PDF) from the Association of Women in Science and the Society of Women Engineers highlights, not one study has shown that women receive preferential treatment in competition for scientific positions in federal programs.

Title IX ensures that one gender is not unfairly discriminated against. It does not guarantee or mandate proportional representation by gender, even in athletics. Thus Dr. Hoff Sommers' concerns about "enforced parity" are unfounded. With at least nine Title IX complaince reviews already completed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Energy, not one single male student or faculty member has lost his slot to make way for a woman. Not a single review has raised the issue of gender parity. Rather, the reviews focus on policies, practices and procedures that might unnecessarily (and unfairly) exclude women from full participation in engineering and science programs at nuiversiies that receive significant taxpayer suport in the form of federal research grant funding. They are not "haphazard," as Dr. Hoff Sommers suggests. They are done with attention to the factors that we know hinder the full participation of women in academic science and engineering.

Dr. Hoff Sommers fears that these reviews will disrupt the culture of academic science and engineering and, by extension, destroy the American scientific excellence so vital to the economy and national defense. Yet, she and others who share her views have offered nothing other than conjecture as a basic for this irrational fear. On the other hand, study after study shows the value of diversity in the workplace, particularly with regard to bringing new ideas forward in creative and imaginative ways.

Worry not, fellow women--not all men are against us. Andrew Plemmons Pratt at Science Progress writes,

What [Hoff Sommers] fails to mention is that fact that at each rung of the academic ladder from undergrad to professorship, more women leave science and engineering fields, leading to a dearth of female representation in the upper echelons. According to a National Academies report, “at the top research institutions, only 15.4% of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8% in the life sciences are women.” These are the circles where gender parity is a significant question.

Sommers then touches on the merits of “sexist bias” or “considered preference” as explanations for the imbalances. But if we’re going to focus on the top of the scientific profession, where the representational differences are real, then consider the results of a survey from last year of tenured investigators at the National Institutes of Health: “only 29 percent of the tenure-track principal investigators (PI) and 19 percent of tenured PIs—the NIH equivalent of assistant and full professors, respectively—are women.”

Hannah at Women in Astronomy engages directly with Hoff Sommers's example of women's basketball to illustrate how, even with the gender parity of Title IX, men's interests are not being harmed:

[M]en's college basketball does not seem to have suffered at all from the rise of women's college basketball. College basketball was all over the news last month, at least the men's tournament. Maybe once in a while you'd hear about the women's tournament, but it wasn't the big story.

Hannah continues,

[W]e need to bring more people into STEM fields. If you limit those people to just the white males, you're not taking advantage of all your resources. This is not a zero-sum game. Believe it or not, women and minorities can make significant contributions to STEM, too. The white male culture of STEM does not necessarily produce the best science, and just because it's always been that way doesn't mean that it can't change.

Title IX is not just about sports: it's about ending sexual discrimination in universities as a whole. It just so happens that the only realm where this has been successful is sports. Title IX was passed 37 years ago: it's high time that it was applied more widely.

Amen. Let's provide more opportunities for the high-achieving Joans and Carols and Stacys to emerge within scientific fields as well as athletic ones.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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