Nature or Nurture? Science and Title IX
It’s Kind of a Drag
In April, I posted this about the imposition of gender quotas on Harvard’s infamous Math 55 course.
The imposition of gender quotas on collegiate science programs wouldn’t harm Harvard’s Math 55. At least, not at first. It would, however, immediately harm small and marginal programs, the analog to wrestling, hockey and even men’s track and field (remember that as you watch this summer’s Olympic Games).
Now, the NYTs John Tierney writes about the Federal Government doing “Title IX Compliance Reviews” at the physics and engineering departments of several universities.
The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy have set up programs to look for sexual discrimination at universities receiving federal grants. Investigators have been taking inventories of lab space and interviewing faculty members and students in physics and engineering departments at schools like Columbia, the University of Wisconsin, M.I.T. and the University of Maryland.
So far, these Title IX compliance reviews haven’t had much visible impact on campuses beyond inspiring a few complaints from faculty members. (The journal Science quoted Amber Miller, a physicist at Columbia, as calling her interview “a complete waste of time.”) But some critics fear that the process could lead to a quota system that could seriously hurt scientific research and do more harm than good for women.
Isn’t that special! It is, of course, Congress providing the pressure, for the budgets of the NSF, NASA and the DoE come from there.
The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.
Disputed? Naw. Couldn’t be. There are those who say there should be no controversy about this at all.
When women are underrepresented in a desirable field the usual explanation is their personal preferences: women just don’t want to do physics or sell refrigerators, and who are we to question their choices? Maybe it’s genetic! With men, it’s almost the opposite: no one asks why men don’t become kindergarten teachers,[…]
[To which I say “What??? No one asks because the answer is too well known.” But that is besides the point at hand.]
Tierney goes a long way to support the thesis that there is something other than gender bias at work at the U. of MDs physics department. He notes a study that tracked 5000 mathematically gifted girls to see where they landed in the universe of possibilities.
Despite their mathematical prowess, they were less likely than boys to go into physics or engineering.
But whether they grew up to be biologists or sociologists or lawyers, when they were surveyed in their 30s, these women were as content with their careers as their male counterparts. They also made as much money per hour of work. Dr. Lubinski and Dr. Benbow concluded that adolescents’ interests and balance of abilities — not their sex — were the best predictors of whether they would choose an “inorganic” career like physics.
Indeed, he quotes Susan Pinker (see “The Sexual Paradox,”), who finds the opposite problem. Women who had abandoned careers in the sciences had done so, not because they felt discrimination, but because the felt that they had been pressured into careers that they disliked.
Finally, after about 40 column inches about the impact of the discussion and controversy on women, Tierney then hints that he understands the problem the way I do.
Whether or not quotas are ever imposed, some of the most productive science and engineering departments in America are busy filling out new federal paperwork. The agencies that have been cutting financing for Fermilab and the Spirit rover on Mars are paying for investigations of a problem that may not even exist. How is this good for scientists of either sex?
… which is the idea I was trying to get across in April. I’m sure that if James Carville was writing that last paragraph, it would read “It’s the educational overhead, stupid.” It drags everyone down.