Gender equality: From sports to math and science
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.