Foolishly Seeking Gender Equity in Math and Science

By Sommers, Christina Hoff

“The business community and citizens at large completely are in the dark. This is a quiet revolution. Its weapons are government reports that rarely are seen; amendments to Federal bills that almost no one reads; small, unnoticed, but dramatically consequential changes in the regulations regarding government grants; and congressional hearings attended mostly by true believers.” MATH 55 IS ADVERTISED in the Harvard University catalog as “probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.” It is a notoriously difficult course that does not look like America. Each year, as many as 50 individuals sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former pupil told The Crimson newspaper in 2006, “We had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.” Said another, “I guess you can say it’s an episode of ‘Survivor’ with people voting themselves off.” The final class roster, according to The Crimson: “45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.”

Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences? Women now earn 57% of bachelors degrees and 59% of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women, who earn more Ph.D.s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Elsewhere, though, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19% of tenure-track professors in math, 11 % in physics, and 10% in computer science and electrical engineering. Moreover, the pipeline does not promise statistical parity anytime soon; women are earning 24% of the Ph.D.s in the physical sciences- way up from the four percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. “The change is glacial,” notes Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory. Rolison and others want to apply Title IX to science education.

Title IX, the celebrated gender equity provision of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, so far has been applied mainly to college sports, but the measure is not limited to athletics. It provides, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex … be denied the benefits of … any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

While Title DC has been effective in promoting women’s participation in sports, it also has caused serious damage, in part because it has led to the adoption of a quota system. Over the years, judges, Department of Education officials, and college administrators have interpreted Tide DC to mean that women are entitled to “statistical proportionality.” That is to say, if a college’s student body is 60% female, then 60% of the athletes should be female-even if far fewer women than men are interested in playing sports at that college. Yet, many athletic directors have been unable to attract the same proportion of women as men. To avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, they simply have eliminated men’s teams. Although there are many factors affecting the evolution of men’s and women’s college sports, there is no question that Title IX has led to men’s participation being calibrated to the level of women’s interest. That kind of calibration could devastate academic science.

Unfortunately for academia, equity activists such as Rolison are not alone in their eagerness to apply TiUe DC to the sciences. On Oct. 17, 2007, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology convened to learn why women are “underrepresented” in academic professorships of science and engineering and to consider what the Federal government should do about it.

Why women tend to gravitate to fields such as education, English, psychology, and biology, while men are much more numerous in physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering is an interesting question-and the subject of a substantial amount of empirical literature. Yet, there were no disagreements on the matter at the congressional hearing. All five “expert” witnesses, and all five congressmen, Democrat and Republican, were in complete accord. They attributed the dearth of women in university science to a single cause: pervasive sexism. There was no dispute about the solution, either. All agreed on the need for a revolutionary transformation of American science itself. “Ultimately,” notes Kathie Olsen, deputy director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), “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.”

The first witness was Donna Shalala. She had chaired the “Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” organized by several leading scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. In 2006, the committee released a report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” that claimed to find “pervasive unexamined gender bias.” It received lavish media attention and has become the standard reference work for the “STEM” gender-equity movement (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math).

A hostile climate

At the hearing, Shalala warned that strong measures would be needed to improve the “hostile climate” women face in the academy. This “crisis,” as she called it, “clearly calls for a transformation of academic institutions. . . . Our nation’s future depends on it.” Shalala and other speakers called for rigorous application of Title IX and other punitive measures.

A centerpiece of STEM activism is the idea that science, as currently organized and practiced, intrinsically is hostile to women and a barrier to the realization of their unique intellectual potential. Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins, an effective leader of the science equity campaign, points to the hidden sexism of the obsessive and competitive work ethic of institutions like MIT. “It is a system,” Hopkins maintains, “where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive.” This viewpoint explains the constant emphasis-by equity activists such as Shalala, Rolison, and Olsen-on the need to transform the “entire culture” of academic science and engineering. The notion that the success of females in science depends on changing the rules of the game seems demeaning to women-but it gives the STEM-equity movement extraordinary scope, commensurate with the wide-ranging power that Federal science funding would put at its disposal.

Already, the National Science Foundation is administering a multimillion-dollar gender-equity program called ADVANCE, which, as Olsen told the subcommittee, aims to transform the culture of American science to make it gender-fair. Through ADVANCE, NSF is attempting to make academic science departments more cooperative, democratic, and interdisciplinary as well as less obsessive and stressful.

These proposed solutions assume a problem that might not exist. If numerical inferiority were sufficient grounds for charges of discrimination or cultural insensitivity, Congress should be holding hearings on the crisis of underrepresentation of men in higher education. After all, women earn most of the degrees-practically across the board. What about male proportionality in the humanities, social sciences, and biology? The physical sciences are the exception, not the rule.

So, why are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences? In a recent survey of faculty attitudes on social issues, sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University asked 1,417 professors what accounts for the relative scarcity of female professors in math, science, and engineering. Just one percent of respondents attributed the scarcity to women’s lack of ability, 24% to sexist discrimination, and 74% to differences in what characteristically interests men and women. Many experts who study male-female differences provide strong support for that 74% majority. Readers can go to books like David Geary’s Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences (1998); Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modem Denial of Human Nature (2002), and Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain (2003) for arguments suggesting that biology plays a distinctive- but not exclusive-role in career choices.

Baron-Cohen is one of the world’s leading experts on autism, a disorder that affects far more males than females. Autistic persons tend to be socially disconnected and unaware of the emotional states of others, but they often exhibit obsessive fixation on objects and machines. Baron-Cohen suggests that autism may be the far end of the male norm-the “extreme male brain,” all systematizing and no empathizing. He believes that men are, “on average,” wired to be better systematizers and women to be better empathizers. It is a daring claim-but he has data to back it up, presenting a wide range of correlations between the level of fetal testosterone and behaviors in girls and boys from infancy into grade school. Despite two major waves of feminism, women still predominate-sometimes overwhelmingly-in empathy-centered fields such as early-childhood education, social work, veterinary medicine, and psychology, while men are overrepresented in the “systematizing” vocations such as car repair, oil drilling, and electrical engineering.

The research emphasizing the importance of biological differences in determining women’s and men’s career choices is not decisive, but it is serious and credible. So the question arises: How have so many officials at NSF and NAS and so many legislators been persuaded that we are facing a science crisis that Tide DC enforcement and gender- bias workshops can resolve? The answer involves a body of feminist research that purports to prove that women suffer from “hidden bias.” Regrettably, the three recognized canons of the literature are, in key respects, travesties of scientific method, and they have been publicized and promoted in ways that have ignored elementary standards of transparency and objectivity.

We begin with the famous, and mysterious, MIT study. In 1994, 16 senior faculty women, led by Hopkins, complained to the administration about sex discrimination in their various departments. MIT’s president, Charles Vest, and the dean of the School of Science, Robert Birgeneau, dutifully set up a committee to review the complaints but, rather than bring in outsiders, they put the protesters (joined by three male administrators) in charge of investigating their own grievances. Under Hopkins’ leadership, the committee produced a 150-page study that found MTT guilty on all counts. The report was deemed “confidential” and “sensitive” and, to this day, it never has been made public.

What was released to the press, in March 1999, was a brief summary of the report’s findings, along with letters from Vest and Birgeneau admitting guilt. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “MTT released a cursory report of the study it conducted, so it is difficult for outsiders to judge what the gap was between men and women.” The New York Times carried the story on the front page under the headline, “MTT Admits Discrimination Against Female Professors.” Prof. Hopkins soon was everywhere in the press and, on April 8, 1999, was invited to attend an Equal Pay Day event at the White House. Referring to Hopkins and her team, Pres. Bill Clinton stated, “Together they looked at cold, hard facts about disparity in everything from lab space to annual salary.”

However, cold, hard facts had little to do with it. University of Alaska psychologist Judith Kleinfeld concludes, “The MTT report presents no objective evidence whatsoever to support claims of gender discrimination in laboratory space, salary, research funds, and other resources.” Readers are told in the summary report that women faculty “proved to be underpaid,” but we also learn (hat the “salary data [is] confidential and [was] not provided to the committee.” So, on what basis did they conclude there were salary disparities? Hopkins and the other authors explain, “Possible inequities in salary are flagged by the committee from the limited data available to it.” The trouble is, “possible” soon became “actual” and, by the time it reached Pres. Clinton, it had morphed into “cold, hard facts.”

What discrimination?

Mathematics professor Daniel Kleitman, one of the three males on the Hopkins committee, told the Chronicle that he “never saw any evidence” of discrimination against women. When a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education asked Mary-Lou Pardue, an MTT biology professor who was among those who originally complained to the dean, about all the irregularities and the absence of data, she replied, ‘This wasn’t meant to be a study for the rest of the world. It was meant to be a study for us. . . . We weren’t trying to prove anything to the world.” The world, though, thought otherwise, and when a Wall Street Journal editorial faulted the study, Vest and Birgeneau sent a letter claiming that the work of their committee had “successfully identified the root causes of a fundamental failure in American academia.” As a direct result of the MIT report, the Ford Foundation, along with an anonymous donor, came forward with grants in excess of $1,000,000 to fund more equity studies and to promote more initiatives to fight gender bias in academic science- and then NSF followed suit with its ADVANCE institutional transformation campaign.

In May 1997, the distinguished British journal Nature published a provocative article titled, “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review.” The authors, Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, two Swedish scientists from the University of Goteborg, claimed to have found blatant gender bias in the peer-review system of the Swedish Medical Research Council. After reviewing the relevant data, they concluded that, to win a postgraduate science fellowship, a female applicant had to be at least twice as good as a male applicant The Wenneras- Wold article caused a sensation in Europe and the U.S., and now is a staple in the gender-equity literature. A recent article in Scientific American referred to it as the one and only “thorough study of the real-world peer-review process” and judged its findings “shocking.” The Shalala-NAS “Beyond Bias” report describes the piece as a “powerful” tool for educating provosts, department chairs, and search committees about bias.

Yet, what does the article actually show? Wenneras and Wold investigated the peer-reviewing practices of the Medical Research Council in 1994 after they both had been denied postgraduate fellowships. The Swedish study, unlike the MIT report, actually was published, and it presents data and describes its methodology, but there are serious grounds for skepticism: once again, it was a case of women investigating their own complaints; furthermore, what they concluded seemed a bit improbable. According to their calculations, to score as well as a man, a woman had to have the equivalent of three extra papers published in world-class science journals such as Science or Nature or 20 extra papers in leading specialty journals such as Radiology or Neuroscience.

I sent the Swedish study to two research psychologists, Jerre Levy (professor emerita, University of Chicago) and James Steiger (professor and director, Quantitative Methods and Evaluation, Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University) for their review. They both immediately zeroed in on some troubling methodological anomalies: though it is unlikely that any one variable adequately characterizes academic productivity, Wenneras and Wold analyzed each productivity variable individually instead of using an inclusive regression formula that analyzes all productivity variables simultaneously. Steiger wrote to Wenneras and Wold requesting copies of the data so he could review it himself. Wold wrote back that she gladly would send the data, except that it had gone missing.

Certainly, researchers occasionally lose data, but this was pretty special data: the researchers had invested substantial time and the expense of a lawsuit to obtain it, and it was the basis of a highly celebrated study with singular findings. Even assuming that the research held up, however, it is odd that a single study of postgraduate fellowships at a Swedish university should play such a prominent role in a campaign to eliminate “hidden bias” in American universities.

When NSF carried out a review of its own grant-review process in the U.S. in 1997, it found no evidence of bias against women. In 1996, for example, it approved grants from approximately 30% of female applicants and 29% of male applicants. A formal outside study, performed in 2005 by the RAND Corporation (titled “Is there Gender Bias in Federal Grants Programs?”) reached the same conclusion: “Overall, we did not find gender differences in federal grant funding outcomes in this study.”

Unlike the Swedish study, however, the RAND study did not make it to the NSF/NAS list of essential literature on gender bias. Two other items in the “top four” are weak statistical studies of marginal issues that never have been evaluated rigorously.

A final item in the STEM-equity canon is a book by feminist Virginia Valian that purports to be scientific, but is not. Valian, a psychologist at Hunter College, is one of the most cited authorities in the crusade to achieve equity for women in the sciences. Her 1998 book Why So Slow? is indispensable to the movement because it offers a solution to a vexing problem: women’s seemingly free but actually serf-defeating choices. Her central claim is that our male-dominated society constructs and enforces “gender schemas.” A gender schema is an accepted system of beliefs about the ways men and women differ-a system that determines what suits each sex. Writes Valian: “hi white, Western middle-class society, the gender schema for men includes being capable of independent, autonomous action [and being] assertive, instrumental, and task-oriented. Men act. The gender schema for women is different; it includes being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others.”

Valian does not deny that gender schemas have a foundation in biology, but she insists that culture can intensify or diminish their power and effect. Our society, she adds, pressures women to indulge their nurturing propensities while it encourages men to develop “a strong commitment to earning and prestige, great dedication to the job, and an intense desire for achievement.” All this inevitably results in a permanently unfair advantage for men. To achieve a gender-fair society, Valian advocates a concerted attack on conventional gender schemas. This includes altering the way we raise our children. Consider the custom of encouraging girls to play with dolls. Such early socialization, she argues, creates an association between being female and being nurturing. Valian concludes, Egalitarian parents can bring up their children so that both boys and girls play with dolls and trucks. . . . From the standpoint of equality, nothing is more important.” In the face of resistance, Valian advocates perseverance. “We don’t accept biology as destiny. . . . We vaccinate, we inoculate, we medicate. . . . I propose we adopt the same attitude toward biological sex differences.” In other words, the ubiquitous female propensity to nurture should be treated as a kind of disorder or disease. Valian’s views are a guiding light for some of the nation’s leading scientific institutions. Her book is trumpeted on the NSF/NAS ‘Top Research” list, and Valian herself has inspired NSF’s ADVANCE gender- equity program, hi 2001, NSF awarded Valian and her Hunter colleagues $3,900,000 to develop equity programs and workshops for the “scientific community at large.”

NSF has an annual budget of $5,900,000,-000 devoted to “promoting the progress of science” and “securing the national defense.” It is not easy to understand how NSF regards its ADVANCE program or its deep association with Valian as serving those goals. Since 2001, NSF has given approximately $107,000,000 to 28 institutions of higher learning to develop transformation projects. Hunter College, the site of Valian’s $3,900,000 program, is one of them. The University of Michigan also has received $3,900,000; Cornell University, $3,300,000; and the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao, $3,100,000.

What are these schools doing with the money? Some of the funds are being used for relatively innocuous-possibly even beneficial- projects such as mentoring programs and conferences, but there are worrisome initiatives as well. Michigan is experimenting with “interactive” theater as a means of raising faculty consciousness about gender bias. At special workshops, physicists and engineers watch skits where overbearing men ride roughshod over hapless-but obviously intellectually superior-female colleagues. The writer- director, Jeffrey Steiger of the university’s theater program, explains that the project is inspired by Brazilian director Auguste Boal’s book Theatre of the Oppressed (1974). Some audience members will find the experience “threatening and overwhelming,” and Steiger aims to provide them a “safe” context for expressing themselves.

The play’s the thing

NSF showcases this program as a “tried and true” success story. Michigan is not alone in using theater to advance the progress of science. The University of Puerto Rico at Humacao devoted some of its NSF-ADVANCE grant to co-sponsor performances of Eve Ensler’s raunchy play “The Vagina Monologues,” a celebration of women’s intimate anatomy. The University of Rhode Island lists among its ADVANCE “events” a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” along with a visit by Valian. More mainstream schools are using their ADVANCE funds more conventionally-to initiate quota programs. At Cornell, as of 2006, 27 of 51 science and engineering departments had fewer than 20% women, and some had no women at all. It is using its NSF grant for a program called ACCEL (Advancing Cornell’s Commitment to Excellence and Leadership), dedicated to filling science faculty with “more than” 30% women in time for the university’s sesquicentennial in 2015.

Sensible people will be inclined to dismiss the ADVANCE programs, the enthusiastic promotion of weak and tendentious bias studies, and the blustering senators and congressmen as an inconsequential sideshow in the onward march of mighty American science and technology. NSF, like any government agency with a budget of $6,000,000,000, can be expected to spill a few million here and there on silly projects and on appeasing noisy constituent groups. However, the STEM-equity campaign is not going to rest with a few scientific bridges-tonowhere. For one thing, the Title IX compliance reviews already are underway. In the spring of 2007, the Department of Education evaluated the Columbia University physics department. Cosmology professor Amber Miller was required to make an inventory of all the equipment in the lab and indicate whether women were allowed to use various items. She told Science Magazine: “I wanted to say, leave me alone, and let me get my work done.” However, Miller and her fellow scientists are not going to be left alone. Equally ominous is the fact that NSF and NAS-the U.S.’s most prestigious and influential institutions of science-already have made significant concessions to the STEM-equity ideology. So have MIT and Harvard.

The power and glory of science and engineering is that they are, adamantly, evidencebased, but the evidence of gender bias in math and science is flimsy at best, and the evidence that women are relatively disinclined to pursue these fields at the highest levels is serious. When the bastions of science pay obsequious attention to the flimsy and turn a blind eye to the serious, it is hard to maintain the view that the science enterprise somehow is immune to the enthusiasms that have corrupted other, supposedly “softer” academic fields.

Few academic scientists know anything about the equity crusade. Most have no idea of its power, its scope, and the threats that they soon may be facing. The business community and citizens at large completely are in the dark. This is a quiet revolution. Its weapons are government reports that rarely are seen; amendments to Federal bills that almost no one reads; small, unnoticed, but dramatically consequential changes in the regulations regarding government grants; and congressional hearings attended mostly by true believers.

American scientific excellence is a precious national resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation’s health and safety. Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Burton Richter, Nobel laureate in physics, once pointed out that MIT alone- its faculty, alumni, and staff-started more than 5,000 companies in the past 50 years. Will an academic science that is quota-driven, genderbalanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time- consuming produce anything like these results? So far, no one in Congress even has thought to ask.

“Ultimately . . . 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.”

“. . . It is odd that a single study of postgraduate fellowships at a Swedish university should play such a prominent role in a campaign to eliminate ‘hidden bias’ in [U.S.] universities.”

“The power and glory of science and engineering is that they are, adamantly, evidence-based, but the evidence of gender bias in math and science is flimsy at best. . . .”

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.

Copyright Society for Advancement of Education Sep 2008

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