Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Should Science Be Title IX'd?

The NYTimes has an article on Title IX impacting the sciences today (thanks to the commenter who pointed me to it!). As is often the case with short articles on subjects I already know and think a lot about, I don't think this is a great article. Still, it raises some interesting points that I'm going to get to. But first, as evidence of my problems with the article, I present its last paragraph (emphasis mine):

Whether or not quotas are ever imposed, some of the most productive science and engineering departments in America are busy filling out new federal paperwork. The agencies that have been cutting financing for Fermilab and the Spirit rover on Mars are paying for investigations of a problem that may not even exist. How is this good for scientists of either sex?

Apparently my problems in the field, and those of thousands of other women, are figments of our hysterical female imaginations. The numerous studies showing that women must be better to have the same success as men (here's a better NYTimes article) must be flawed. Instead, the article argues, what's really going on is that women are just happier elsewhere. And it dismisses the idea that this is because of the discrimination in the field.

The basic premise is that women enjoy interacting with people in higher percentages than men, who enjoy interacting with machines in higher percentages than women. This may be true, but it should have nothing to do with women in the sciences. In fact, computer science for example, is a highly interactive field. We work with each other, test subjects, students, etc. We go to conferences. (We even comment on blogs.) Ultimately, the portrayal of computer science desperately needs to change (I believe the NSF is working on an initiative to do this... but I can't find the link right now). But really, that's not what this article was about. In fact, the author could have taken a look at the field originally heavily regulated by Title IX - sports. When Title IX first began, I'm sure people made the argument that women just weren't as interested in sports as men. And yet the participation of women in sports has increased dramatically.

So the question is, should science be regulated by Title IX? I think that, as with other regulations, this all depends on how the oversight is implemented and what the outcome means in terms of paperwork and restrictions. But trying to think about it abstractly, my answer is yes. This does not mean that I believe in quotas, which I think might cause enough resentment so that they wouldn't be worth it. Instead, I believe that something drastic needs to be done to encourage (um, force) departments to take this issue seriously. As a grad student, I should not be a major advocate for women within my department - I should be a drop in the bucket. And yet I find myself frequently explaining why the department should care if there are women admitted, retained, etc. And frequently finding ways to help those goals along. And this is not to say that my department is not responsive to these issues when I bring them up - just that it is not a priority. Doing research is the priority. As it should be. Which is why I think departments need help.

One of the frequent oversights which increases the disparity between the percentages of women and men in the field (and is common to other minority groups as well) is the extent to which the majority make qualitative decisions based on their own familiarity with people like them. I served on my department's admissions committee this past year. I believe that we ultimately did a fair job, but in the discussions about candidates there were often comments like "I just have a feeling that she wouldn't make it here." We are scientists and should know better than to make such wildly unsubstantiated claims. Yet these are comments that appear at every level. They should not be allowed to impact the decision making process, but without some sort of regulation over the closed-door decisions these comments keep women who are only as good as the men out of the sciences. Perhaps Title IX could help.

7 comments:

scout said...

As a grad student, I should not be a major advocate for women within my department - I should be a drop in the bucket. [...] And this is not to say that my department is not responsive to these issues when I bring them up - just that it is not a priority.

I agree. Profoundly. And I really like your way of putting it... so much so that I am going to send a link to this post to my advisor, and, after I've slept on it, perhaps to all the tenured/tenure-track faculty in our department.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, computer science for example, is a highly interactive field."

I'd definitely disagree. I think your experience as a student might be coloring your perception here. (Students have forms of interaction---taking classes, studying in groups---that aren't relevant to faculty who have chosen a career in computer science. Faculty are also more specialized than students.) Research is often solitary, and I think computer science is more solitary than most fields.

"When Title IX first began, I'm sure people made the argument that women just weren't as interested in sports as men. And yet the participation of women in sports has increased dramatically."

And yet, if you look at the numbers, they still show that women aren't as interested in sports as men. And at every college women's teams have to work much harder to get recruits. Maybe the popular perception was exaggerated, but there was some truth to it.

sorelle said...

apparently this guy has a history of ignoring the relevant data - check out the comments by Female Science Professor: http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2008/07/tuesday-extra-edition-women-in-science.html

Anonymous said...

In my own experience, these things are *highly* variable depending on your university. Problems at a certain Cambridge-based university, for example, does not mean that there is a universal problem. I also have a problem with anecdotal data from FemaleScienceProfessor. Nearly everybody, both men and women, has some of the same kinds of gripes: not paid as much as peers, given less lab space, lower priority for various requests. Complaining about a higher committee load because committees need "token women" and simultaneously about the existence of all-male committees doesn't seem completely reasonable.

Anonymous said...

One of the main points of the article was that efforts to increase female representation in the sciences need to start earlier to be successful. It is unfair to require depts to hire more female profs when the fraction of women getting PhDs is low. And it is unfair to mandate graduate admissions quotas for females when the fraction of female applicants is low.

This is not to say that one should not address the problems that appear to cause women to drop out of the CS major, or to drop out of grad school in numbers higher than males. But the answer is not quotas, at least not until the numbers of interested females coming out of high school is increased.

On another note, it is sad that one must post anonymously [as I am] whenever one disagrees with whatever the current politically correct thinking is. (At least until one has tenure.)

Anonymous said...

I think better results would be achieved by putting more resources into the problem. For example, if there were fellowships to that would support any female student applying to CS undergrad/grad school, you can assume that their number would increase siginficantly.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

anonymous 2 -- While there are individuals who prefer research to be a solitary endeavor, I think if you're finding computer science research is not interactive, and you want to interact, there's some other issue going on.

Computer science -- in particular theory, in my experience -- is highly interactive. Most papers have multiple co-authors. Most work is done in groups. And I think most people in the field recognize that, when doing research, 1+1 is definitely greater than 2. If there's one thing theorists are aware of, it's the power of interaction for proofs!