Recent efforts by federal agencies to verify university compliance with Title IX are under scrutiny. Some claim Title IX compliance reviews are a "new" way to apply the law to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but this law has been applicable to all educational programs receiving federal funds for 36 years. Title IX compliance can open the doors to the so-called "male-typical pursuits" in STEM fields to women, just as equal opportunity mandates have done for once-closed careers of firefighters, police officers and military personnel.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. It requires gender equity for boys and girls, men and women in every educational program that receives federal funding -- not just in college sports. It also authorizes and directs federal funding agencies to implement the provisions of the law.
A 2004 Government Accountability Office report noted that the federal agencies have not discharged their obligations to ensure that educational institutions comply with the statues. In fact, most only passively receive statements of compliance with Title IX -- usually in the form of a pro forma assertion.
Title IX compliance reviews can help to confirm that academic institutions receiving federal funding establish a climate that ensures a representation of women in STEM disciplines that reflects their level of interest. Any difference in participation, then, is a result of the personal interests of women and not due to environmental factors that discourage them from entering or remaining in these fields.
There have been several recent articles arguing that women don't want to be scientists and engineers, and that those of us advocating for more women in these fields are not acknowledging innate gender-specific career inclinations. In fact, the problems encountered by women considering a STEM career vary by discipline. The low number of women earning degrees in physics, chemistry, computer science and engineering is often attributed to a lack of interest, but the fact that many women with excellent academic performance enter but later abandon these fields suggests otherwise.
Asking federal agencies to complete Title IX compliance reviews will not lead to a quota system. No one is suggesting that the number of men participating in science careers be cut to achieve gender parity in participation. Rather, such reviews can help to create an academic environment in which more women -- and men -- can succeed.
The arguments against conducting compliance reviews completely ignore a large body of recent research exploring reasons for the poor retention of women in science and engineering fields and examining the issues that female students and faculty confront. They avoid the question of why women scientists are not showing expected career advancement even in fields where they earn 50 percent of the degrees.
Women enter faculty positions in engineering and physics roughly in proportion to their presence in the PhD pool, but then gradually disappear from higher ranks. This pattern suggests a discouraging environment once they join the faculty. The existence of a discouraging environment is supported by the trends seen in life sciences, where women have earned close to 50 percent of the PhDs for several decades. Biology departments rarely have more than 30 percent women faculty, and women average less than 25 percent of the full professors in biomedical departments at research universities. Isn't this alone sufficient reason for federal agencies to examine what is going on?
To remain competitive in the global economy, our country must educate and retain the brightest minds in science and engineering to provide the needed talent and diversity in our workforce. Providing federal Title IX oversight helps America compete, and ensures that a large segment of our population is not left out of the educational, economic and other opportunities STEM fields present. Forty years of experiences have shown us that when the gates to opportunity are questioned, the entryways become larger, and all of us benefit. This is what Title IX reviews will help achieve. To be competitive in this new global economy, women -- and the nation -- cannot afford to wait.
Koster is the executive director of the Association for Women in Science. Shanahan is the executive director of the Society of Women Engineers.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 7/08