Unfortunately, in many circles, including the academy and apparently now Congressional committees, the topic is too taboo to challenge. You’ll recall that not long ago, Harvard President Lawrence Summers was swiftly kicked out the door for asking if innate biological differences between the sexes might be a factor in the disproportional representation in the STEM disciplines.
Shalala may confidently conclude, “women opt out of careers in academic science because of the hostile environment,” but what if Summers is right and other factors are at play? Leading experts go back and forth on the issue of innate differences between the sexes and the significance of stereotype threat as they relate to women and science. There is a very real possibility that biology, personality, ability, and several other factors are at play here. All of these deserve honest exploration. Universities and colleges should examine their practices and consider ways that they can encourage talented women to explore and remain engaged in these fields. But they should do so not in a desire to reach some government quota, but because women have much to offer in terms of research and other contributions. We shouldn’t assume that the optimal make up of any department or field will be equal numbers of men and women: our goal should be to ensure that men and women both are welcomed to pursue study and careers in any area they choose.
The October 17th hearing was the first in a series. Hopefully the upcoming hearings will show more of a commitment to honest debate. It’s foolhardy to jump straight to solutions without considering first if there’s a problem and its nature. Let’s hope that Congress gets back to the basics and takes a fresh, unbiased look at the subject at hand.