The 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.
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