by Rose O’Malley, Program Assistant
National Women’s Law Center
A recent column in the New York Times discusses the fact that Title IX compliance reviews are now taking place in science and engineering programs. The author, John Tierney, seems to believe that this will lead to excess paperwork, cutting of funding for male students, wastes of money, and the downfall of science, and possibly humanity, as we know it.
Okay, I’m exaggerating on the last point, but not by much. Mr. Tierney firmly comes down against performing Title IX compliance reviews to investigate whether or not there is any gender discrimination in the sciences. Very, very firmly.
There are so many things wrong with his conclusion, not to mention the tone of his argument, but let’s start with the way he invokes the worst fear of anti-Title IX and anti-affirmative action proponents: quotas. (Try saying it in a spooky voice: Quooooootas.) Quotas to Mr. Tierney appear to mean that soon there will have to be just as many (or even more!) female scientists as male scientists. Labs will be taken over by women, who will talk about their feelings and decorate their Bunsen burners with fetching little hats instead of engaging in hard research! Tierney is scared that having too many women in the labs will force men to – yuck – discuss their emotions or think about new and different ways to approach scientific problems. Tierney also endorses the zero-sum approach to equity: if it benefits women, and science, for more of them to participate in science, then it must hurt men. If it hurts men, it must, by definition, be a quota. Now THAT doesn’t seem like a scientific argument.
The only thing wrong with this assertion is that Title IX does not impose “quotas.” It just doesn’t. Instead, Title IX simply forbids sex discrimination, which we should all agree is illegal and should be stopped.
So, Mr. Tierney is mistaken on some important facts about Title IX. Unfortunately for his readers, however, he doesn’t stop there. He uses the rest of his column to promote unfounded assertions, such as: 1. women are equally treated and represented in all of the sciences, as proven by recent admissions statistics; 2. even when they aren’t equally represented, it’s because women are not naturally interested in the hard sciences; and 3. even women who do go into careers in math and science are not satisfied because gender equity proponents pushed them into careers that are not enjoyable to them. Because they are women.
While I agree (sort of) with his first point that women are making great strides in some, but certainly not all of the sciences, I would argue that one way to find out for sure whether or not there is gender discrimination in academic science programs would be to perform Title IX compliance reviews, the very thing that he is against.
However, it’s the last two arguments that really get to me. Women aren’t interested in hard sciences? That sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? Mr. Tierney partially bases his argument on a study quoted in this article that found that, around age 12, even mathematically gifted girls start leaning toward “organic” subjects, involving living things rather than numbers and abstract concepts, which he takes as proof that women are inclined from a young age toward more “female” subjects. He does not, of course, imagine that those 12 year old girls are picking up on societal cues that math is for boys, and trying to fit in with what is expected of them.
As for the last point, he quotes Susan Pinker, an author (discussed in length in Amanda Schaffer’s excellent series on sex difference), who claims that working toward gender parity “infantilizes” women by assuming that they do not know what they want. She paints a picture of women who, pushed into careers in math and science by teachers and parents who mistakenly encouraged them, found themselves unsatisfied. I have to admit – I’m not quite sure just how it is infantilizing to encourage girls to pursue careers in math or science, but not infantilizing to assume that women will allow themselves to be swayed in a direction that counters their interests and abilities.
One of the first things I did when I read this column was email it to my mother, a former physicist (mostly, I admit, to see if I could hear her head explode over the Internet). Growing up in a house where my sister and I were encouraged and expected to succeed in math and science just as much as literature and history, I didn’t really imagine that there were still those who thought that men and women were inherently suited to one or the other field. Now that I work at the Center, it’s hard to remember being so naïve. So I supposed I owe my current cynicism to Mr. Tierney, and so many others, who never fail to remind me that old stereotypes die hard.