Gender equality: From sports to math and science

July 9, 2009

diana-furchtgottroth–- Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed are her own. –-

The Obama administration is considering a proposal to use federal regulations to expand women’s participation beyond college athletics to the selection of courses, especially in mathematics, science and engineering.

The proposal to apply so-called Title IX gender-equality to selection of courses and majors was discussed at a White House conference on June 23, and endorsed by Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser and assistant to the president, and Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights.

Title IX, passed in 1972 as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has been interpreted to mean that universities which accept federal funds cannot have more male athletes than female, even though more men than women generally want to play sports. Hence, many collegiate men have not been able to participate in intercollegiate athletics, and men’s sports teams have been terminated all over the country.

Title IX was intended to protect against sex discrimination, but not to allow the use of quotas. Indeed, it specifically prohibited arbitrary leveling of student numbers by gender. Yet the courts have required universities to adopt a proportionality standard for college sports if they wished to avoid lawsuits. If 52 percent of the students are female, then 52 percent of sports slots have to go to women.

In a telephone conversation yesterday Ali told me that although the administration will extend Title IX to math and science, it does not intend to argue for proportionality. Instead, the administration will make sure that secondary schools and universities do not discriminate against girls and women when it comes to selection of courses and majors, citing anecdotal evidence that some girls and women are counseled against taking courses in math and science.

Since Title IX is already law, congressional approval is unnecessary. The new initiative will not require new formal regulations, just a change in enforcement.

Ali explained that college athletics were a special case because male and female programs were segregated, whereas math and science classes are open to all, so gender parity—the same number of women as men in a physics class, for example—is not the goal “at this point.”

The question is, of course, at what point, if ever, the administration will decide that gender parity is the goal. Is the administration’s initiative the first step down a slippery slope that will eventually lead to men being shut out of physics classes the way that they are shut out of swimming and diving at the University of California at Los Angeles? Or will the administration be content to monitor discrimination without resorting to quotas?

Measuring discrimination is tough, because differences in outcomes are not necessarily evidence of discrimination. In 2006 women earned 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 27 percent in math and computer science. But there’s no evidence that women who wanted to major in science were turned away—or are now.

The Education Department’s prospective focus on counseling sidesteps the issue of what constitutes constructive advice. Is it permissible for a girl who gets Cs in math and science to be counseled not to major in these subjects in college? Or is that evidence of discrimination? What if schools and colleges never counsel females to stay away from science—and women fail courses, then taking longer to get degrees? How is the Department of Education going to measure discriminatory counseling, and how are schools and colleges going to defend themselves against lawsuits?

Students from around the world go to great lengths to come to American universities to study. Let’s hope that universities will not be discouraged from accepting male scientists, because it distorts the gender balance. Would Albert Einstein have been able to come to America under Title IX?

American universities have long hailed academic freedom for both students and faculty as the hallmarks not only of education but of American society. Applying Title IX to students’ majors and courses could be the beginning of the end.


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It is nice to see that someone else understands that just because the numbers differ from one group to another does not automatically mean that there is discrimination at work. I am a woman. And honestly, I prefer being an English major. And if they are going to apply gender discrimination rules to math and science, does this also mean they will include nursing, which has a larger number of women than men? Discrimination has become the modern witch-hunt, and sometimes it is taken too far.

Posted by Jordan | Report as abusive

I double majored in both Math and Physics at a private college (class of 2008). All my classes were dominated by women, and more than half the Math faculty were as well.

If there is any bias, it isn’t coming from universities or high school guidence counsilors. It’s coming much earlier in pre- and grade school.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

Very good article.
Obama!s views on gender equality,more participation by females on education,employment,administration,spor ts and specially on Maths and Science fields are praise worthy.
All are equal.
Good time to use females potentailities for their personal carrier and to their countries.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

US education system is a shame. In most civilized countries education system is all about sees as many citizens as possible with good education on high paid jobs.

In US education system is huge social engineering machine lead by liberal activists. They more concern with shaping ideology rather than staff them with math, English, etc.

I used to work in R&D, today I work in brokerage. 90% people around me are immigrants. We all paid 3x-5x times over average income. There is simple not enough educated Americans to fill spots. Next door, Americans work for $10-$25/hr.

‘Nobody left behind’ means ‘nobody moves forward’.
For decades US failed to lift education level for minorities to nation average level. Finally US decide to achieve harmony by failing people who still persuade education.

The simple truth that mainstream US culture has no respect to education. US Hall Of Fame full of uneducated Starz and Athletes. Education person seen as a person with unfair competitive advantage. There is not enough demand from minorities for ‘hardscience’ (American name for math/physics/engineering). Preventing few ‘unqualified’ kids from math/physics will not bring more qualified.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

Yep. Extending title IX seems a little over the top. This is making a discrimination issue out of something that is simply not discrimination. I’m a female, and currently working on my PhD in biomedical engineering, and I have never experienced any discrimination or considered it to be a problem. I was a pretty apathetic highschool student, but was never counseled against math or science. Bottom line, if you are a poor student in math and science in grade school, that probably isn’t going to change in college. I think this sort of expansion will open up a slippery slope, and lead to an influx of people who are truely unqualified, leading to failure and wasting money.

Secondly, there are a lot of girls who really just have no interest in math/science. I agree with the person above in that this bias is picked up much earlier in life (preschool/elementary), and is probably an effect of gender roles that are instilled as kids. If you want your daughter to have interest in environment, math, science, mechanics… don’t buy her dolls and clothes to play with. Little boys toys are much more complicated, and based on mechanical skills than girls. Buy your girl an erector set, modeling clay, bug collection kits, etc. Expand programs in early childhood that focus on math and science.

Posted by Katie | Report as abusive

I am a female law student at a Top Ten school, and I am surrounded by other females who were at the top of their undergraduate classes. Many of them decided to go into law because they are “not good at science or math.” Obviously, this cannot be true, since they had to receive top scores their entire academic careers in every subject in order to get where they are today (including standardized testing).

However, it is not discrimination that made these women think that they were “bad at math.” Instead, I think it was the general societal disinclination for math and science careers, which are populated by people who are characterized as boring and nerdy. Where are the great scientists that young people want to emulate? Where is the dashing female Marie Curie that makes little girls want to do equations? The simple fact is that as long as math and science careers have little interpersonal interaction, as long as the workplace for these careers is the cubicle, and as long as there seems to be little light in the drabness of the science career, women just won’t want to do it.

Posted by Katherine | Report as abusive