The Gender-Equity Hammer Comes Out

Resident Scholar
Christina Hoff Sommers
Women have surpassed men in most areas of education, but men continue to be more numerous in fields like math, physics and engineering. For more than a decade, feminist groups have been lobbying Congress to address the problem of gender "injustice" in the laboratory. Their efforts are finally bearing fruit. Federal agencies are now poised to begin aggressive gender-equity reviews of math, science, and engineering programs. Groups like the National Organization for Women must be celebrating--but American scientists should brace themselves for the destructive tsunami headed their way.

At a recent House hearing on "Women in Academic Science and Engineering" Congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington State, asked a room full of activist women how best to bring American scientists into line: "What kind of hammer should we use?" The weapon of choice is the well-known federal anti-discrimination law "Title IX," which prohibits sex discrimination in "any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Title IX has never been rigorously applied to academic science. That is now about to change. In the past few months both the Department of Education and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have begun looking at candidates for Title IX-enforcement positions.

The feminist reformers acknowledge that few science departments are guilty of overt discrimination. They claim, however, that subtle, invisible "unconscious bias" is discouraging talented aspiring women. Therefore, the major focus of the equity movement is to transform the academic culture itself--to make it more attractive to women by rendering science less stressful, less competitive and less time consuming. Debra Rolison, a senior research chemist at the Pentagon's Naval Research Laboratory and a leader of the equity campaign, describes the typical university chemistry department as "brutal to people who want to do something besides chemistry around-the-clock." MIT biologist and equity-activist Nancy Hopkins says that contemporary science "is a system where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive." Kathie Olsen, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, draws the revolutionary conclusion, "Our goal is to transform, institution by institution, the entire culture of science and engineering in America, and to be inclusive of all--for the good of all." To this end, the National Science Foundation has launched a multi-million dollar grant program, called ADVANCE, devoted to "institutional transformation" through gender-sensitivity workshops, interactive theater and the like. ADVANCE is well named: it is the advance guard, softening up the hard sciences for the coming of Title IX enforcement.

To avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, educational institutions have eliminated men's teams--in effect, reducing men's participation to the level of women's interest.

Although Title IX has contributed to the progress of women's athletics, it has done serious harm to men's sports. Over the years, judges, federal officials, and college administrators have interpreted it to mean that women are entitled to "statistical proportionality." That is to say, if a college's student body is 60 percent female, then 60 percent of the athletes should be female--even if far fewer women than men are interested in playing sports at that college. But many athletic directors have been unable to attract the same proportions of women as men. So, to avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, educational institutions have eliminated men's teams--in effect, reducing men's participation to the level of women's interest. That kind of regulatory calibration--call it reductio ad feminem--would wreak havoc in fields that drive the economy such as math, physics and computer science.

It is important to keep in mind that today's academy is hardly inhospitable to women. Harvard, Princeton, Brown, MIT, and other top schools have women presidents. Women earn 57 percent of bachelor's degrees, 59 percent of master's degrees, and half the doctorates. If men were as gender-organized as women, they might lobby for Title IX reviews of the many departments--such as psychology, education, sociology, literature, art history, and the life sciences--where they are woefully "underrepresented." And women now represent 77 percent of students in veterinary schools, so they can obviously manage hard technical science where it interests them.

The lower proportions of women in physics, mathematics, and engineering may be due in part to subtle factors of culture and "unconscious bias," but facts point to simpler explanation. In a recent study by Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, 1,417 professors were asked to explain the relative scarcity of female professors in these fields. Nearly three out of four respondents, 74 percent, attributed it to differences in the subjects that characteristically interest women, while 24 percent put it down to sexist discrimination and 1 percent to women's lack of ability.

A large and growing social science literature supports the 74-percent opinion. According to this research, not bias but natural propensities and preferences explains the disparity. Yet the majority (some would say crushingly obvious) view has not been heard at the congressional hearings, where legislators have been inundated with testimony and petitions from equity activists presenting unsound advocacy research on "hidden sexism" against women.

At one recent hearing, Representative Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who calls himself a "recovering sexist" jokingly suggested we declare science a sport and regulate it the way we do college athletics. But science is not a sport. In science, women and men play on the same teams. In sports, no one suggested that women's success required transforming the "culture of soccer" or cooling the passion for competing and winning. Most of all, the continued excellence of American science and technology is vital to our security and prosperity--and depends on an exacting meritocracy and, at the top, an intensity of vocational devotion that few men or women can achieve.

Congressmen like Ehlers and Baird, and National Science Foundation officials like Kathie Olsen are charged with protecting our scientific proficiency. Taking a feminist hammer to the nation's science departments is recklessly at odds with that mission.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.

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