If the October 17th House hearing is any indication, a full-scale assault on the academy is coming. The target: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The charge: wide scale discrimination against women.
Witnesses, Congressmen, and a crowd of over 100 people gathered last Wednesday on Capitol Hill for a hearing on women in academic science and engineering. No Committee Member or panelist challenged the presumption behind the hearing—that discrimination is the primary cause of women’s underrepresentation among science and engineering academics—they turned right to consideration of government-mandated solutions to the perceived problem.
Several panelists, including former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, spoke of the need for massive “institutional transformation.” Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) asked what sort of “hammer” the government could use to enforce this transformation. A popular answer was Title IX.
Normally associated with gender equity in athletics, Title IX (and the strict gender quotas that come along with it) could also be used to increase female participation in STEM fields. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, went so far as to joke that the sciences should be designated as a sport. This would have two advantages: “NCAA rules would apply” and the sciences would “share in the football revenues.”
Shalala complained that, as a university president, she hears from a variety of government agencies and organizations about gender equity in sports, but rarely hears anything about gender equity in science. She went on to stress the need for an organization similar to the NCAA to hold schools accountable for Title IX enforcement.
Another way to force change is pulling Congressional purse strings. The message from panelists was loud and clear: money talks and the government should leverage its funds to “ensure results.”
Gretchen Ritter from the University of Texas at Austin also envisioned university provosts holding STEM department chairs accountable for their hiring practices with strict financial consequences, such as a year-long hiring freeze. Translation: hire more women or else.
But before Congress or universities embrace drastic measures to attempt to increase the percentage of women in these fields, they should begin with an unbiased look at the root causes.
A National Academies of Sciences report detailing bias in academic science is taken as gospel, but critics allege that the NAS report glosses over contrary findings and downplays alternative explanations for the discrepancies.
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.