Title IX Hits the Science World, But Will It Do Any Good?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 17, 2008 12:17 pm

female scientistThe New York Times is reporting that the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy are invoking Title IX, the anti-discrimination law usually reserved for college athletics, to examine science programs at schools receiving federal money.

Specifically, the feds are sending investigators to take inventories of lab space and interview faculty and students in physics and engineering departments in order to determine whether there are signs of discrimination (an issue we’ve addressed before). The only problem with this tactic: Overt discrimination, the kind that leaves a clear and visible trail, is rarely what’s operating in science departments. Rather, subconscious biases (the power of which we’ve also discussed before) and subtle forces such as a lack of childcare options and flexible maternity leave are more likely to be contributing to the gap.

Not to mention that more often than not, what’s being interpreted as discrimination is occurring as self-selection. The Times cites research finding that, despite the fact that women make up only 10 percent of physics faculties, women with physics degrees have the same likelihood to go on to doctorates, teaching jobs, and tenure that men do. The separation happens earlier: Women are less likely to choose physics in high school or college.

Whether this choice is a result of nature or nurture remains the stuff of intense controversy. But for now at least, it’s not going to be solved by government investigations under Title IX.

Image: Flickr/DrKar

MORE ABOUT: government, law, women

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  1. Liz

    I think it is important to note that the NY Times article is actually a column. It is basically an opinions piece and gives a mostly one-sided account from the author’s, John Tierney, viewpoint. This is should by no means be considered an unbias piece reportage considering its one-sidedness.

    Also, Title IX has always applied to ANY educational program or activity receiving federal funds, as the law states. This means science to. It is in no way reserved for athletics; it just seems this is where it have been most applied. It is also the law for these organizations receiving federal funds to conduct compliance reviews, which is exactly what the feds are doing. They are finally following the law, which they should have been doing the whole time.

  2. This crap about self-selection drives me bananas. As if women are just making these choices about which careers to enter in a vacuum, and there are no constraints – no gender role expectations, no stereotyping, no biased treatment in classrooms, nothing in the media that saturates young kids’ lives, that might push young girls AWAY from careers in the sciences. In chemistry, there is definitely a problem in the step between PhD and assistant professor – women are not being recruited into the assistant professor level at the rate at which they are earning PhDs. Same in biology. Crappy reporting here, Discover. You’ve taken an opinion piece in the NYT, called it reporting, not bothered to look into the validity of what was said, and presented it like it’s truth.

    Not to mention what Liz above says about Title IX: It’s the law, it’s always been the law, and it’s always applied to educational settings as well as sports. Just because it’s been enforced in sports more than in educational settings doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply in the latter.

  3. Azakia

    I agree with Zuska. The moment they place quotas into any academica programme the moment sexual discrimination will be reintroduced this time BECAUSE of title IX; not its absence. This is because Title IX doesn’t take into the equation the levels of interest of different groups. They should be reviewing the levels of interest at the start then checking the outcome of numbers on the otherside. Imagine restricting the amount of Asians in medicine because they don’t meet the quota of asians in the country – Now that’s discrimination.

  4. Anthony

    Title IX is a joke! Our society assumes the underrepresentation of women in science is the result of sexism. Is it possible men and women make different career choices? If title IX is necessary to close the science gap, than why isn’t also used for men to gain parity in female dominated fields? Keep in mind, approximately 60% of all college students are female. Why isn’t the rapid decline of male teachers taken seriously? Title IX is another example of government female entitlement that claims equality at the expense of men.

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