May 15, 2006
Volume 84, Number 20
In 1972, Congress enacted title
IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools. Specifically, Title IX states:
"No person in the United
States shall, on the basis of sex, be
excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to
discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal
financial assistance." Its application to sports in colleges and
universities has resulted in notable gains in the support and participation of
women athletes. Today, more than four times as many women participate in
college athletics as when this law was first passed.
Stanford University Chemistry Department
Expertise Nadine Wong Shi Kam
successfully defended her Ph.D. thesis about two weeks ago at Stanford University's chemistry department.
does the language of Title IX restrict its use to athletics. In 2000, this fact
led Debra R. Rolison of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to urge the
application of Title IX to academics as well as athletics (1). More
than 30 years since Title IX's enactment, the first
tentative steps to do that are taking place. Two federal agencies, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, have performed together
their first on-site compliance inspection. Could another tsunami be approaching
the quiet shores of academia?
The application of Title IX to
academics has come about thanks to the efforts of Sens.
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.),
who put language in the NSF Reauthorization Act mandating that NSF undertake
such studies. This process also received a much needed kick-start from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO),
which issued a report in July 2004 (2) recommending that Congress
direct the agencies that fund scientific research to "take actions to
ensure that compliance reviews of grantees are conducted as required by Title
IX." GAO further noted: "Our review of federal science agencies'
oversight for Title IX suggests that much of the leverage afforded by this law
lies underutilized in the science arena, even as several billion dollars are
spent each year on federal science grants."
In February, I attended the
annual American Association for the Advancement
of Science meeting in St. Louis, where I participated in a symposium,
"Assessing the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics]
Enterprise Through Title IX," organized by Rolison.
What follows are my thoughts on this topic, stimulated by this most provocative
First, I must issue a
professional disclaimer. I paraphrase what Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.)
is reported to have said at a congressional breakfast: "Hi. I am Richard
Zare, and I appear before you as a recovering racist and a recovering
sexist." We are all embedded in a culture that broadcasts signals about
the innate superiority of men, and it is very easy to suffer a relapse.
Although I have a wife who works full-time at Stanford University
and three professional daughters who make me very proud, I still can catch
myself downplaying the worth of women scientists, even though I know better.
SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of
Science Resources Statistics; Donna Nelson; Diversity in Science Association,
How Many? The percentage of graduate students and postdocs who are women has risen only slightly in all
chemistry departments in the U.S.,
and the percentage of women in the faculties of the top 50 chemistry
departments remains low.
it that men are described as brilliant but women are described as talented and
hard-working? Let a man be assertive and we admire his courage to speak out.
Let a woman be assertive and we feel threatened by what she might next say. So,
the first conclusion I reach is that attaining gender equity is a deep cultural
problem, one that most scientists would like to see overcome, but one that is
likely to persist unless active steps are taken to change the culture in which
we live. This conclusion is hardly new, but it needs to be articulated in
seeking a solution.
Let me dispel the myth that the
problem is the pipeline. It is often stated that if we only had more women
going into the sciences, the problem of gender equity would take care of
itself. The facts deny this proposition quite unequivocally. Let's take my
field, chemistry, and look at the statistics. The number of female graduate
students for many years has been between 35 and 40% of the total, the number of
female postdoctoral researchers is slightly above 20%, and the number of women
in all faculty positions at the top 50 universities (as measured by federal
dollars received) approaches 13%. Moreover, the increase of women in the professoriat has proceeded at a glacial pace.
What accounts for this lack of
progress in achieving gender equity? I suggest that three factors are at work:
subtle but real discrimination, the failure to take into account the asymmetric
burdens of childbirth and child care as well as elder care, and the failure to
structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle. Let's examine
these factors in turn.
It might be thought that learned
people of good will would certainly overcome discriminatory practices, but many
studies show that these notions are deeply ingrained. I was surprised to learn
that these cultural blinders affect both men and women (3).
Let me call your attention to a
study by Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold (Nature 1997, 387,
341), who investigated whether the Swedish Medical Research Council (MRC), one
of the main funding agencies for biomedical research in Sweden,
evaluates women and men on an equal basis.
Wennerås and Wold
measured the scientific productivity of each postdoctoral applicant in six
different ways that were combined to produce one score. These factors included
total number of papers, number of first-author papers, impact factor of journal
in which paper was published, number of times paper was cited, and so forth.
Then they plotted the competence score assigned by the MRC selection committee
against this measure, called the impact factor.
It is apparent at once from their
work that women applicants for postdoctoral positions were strongly disfavored
over men with the same impact factor. Multiple regression analyses were
performed to identify factors that determined the decision to accept an
application. It was found that two factors had a significant influence on the
competence scores: the sex of the applicant and the affiliation of the
applicant with one of the committee members. Many regard Sweden to be a
progressive country and the behavior of committees in 1997 to be not much
different from what might be expected today. The conclusions that
discrimination exists and is entrenched in our judgments seem hard to deny.
Many colleges and universities
have started to recognize that women and not men bear children and that women are often the primary caregivers and homemakers.
More needs to be done, but positive steps are being taken, at least in my
Nov. 7, 2005, page 8) and university (Chronicle Higher Educ. 2006, 52, 11), both of
which recently announced childbirth accommodation policies.
The greatest challenge is changing the perception of what
constitutes a successful academic career in STEM. Many have the impression that
unless someone is pursuing academic activities with maniacal fanaticism, the
person is not performing up to expectations. At one time, the same argument was
used to support the claim that any male graduate student who got married was
showing a lack of commitment to his academic career. It is my hope that we have
overcome this hang-up and we will overcome others, but I suggest that such
misconceptions are most effectively addressed by group discussion.
Currently, the reward structure
of the academic rat race in science, engineering, and mathematics presents a
real barrier to women choosing a career in academics. We must dispel the notion
that working day and night equates to productivity. Many of us know coworkers
with limited time available who nevertheless make outstanding contributions to
the success of a research project.
To help promote this group
discussion, I strongly favor the application of Title IX to the STEM
enterprise. If Title IX is used as a tool to change the gender composition and
ultimately the attitudes of the faculty, then the challenge is in the
implementation. Because of the flexibility that Title IX provides, both good
and bad solutions exist, and we must seek only what is best both for the
scientific enterprise and for women.
It is possible to go about the
application of Title IX in a confrontational manner, by challenging each unit
of higher education to demonstrate compliance. Such an approach may be
suboptimal and ultimately self-defeating. Consider that not a single fine was
levied on schools whose sports programs were not in compliance with Title IX.
Instead, by working with each institution, great progress was made. I suggest a
similar approach in which sanctions are a last resort. Again, my recommendation
is based on the belief that many are eager to see greater gender equity in the
We need initially to concentrate
on the careful collection and wide circulation of what I will call Title IX measurables,
quantitative measures that help us judge progress in achieving gender equity. I
suggest that the following information be collected, department by department:
the percentage of women undergraduates who are majoring in the department; the
percentage of women who are graduate students and postdoctoral research
associates; and the percentages of women who are lecturers/instructors,
assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors. Because we are
dealing with relatively small numbers in the last categories, large
fluctuations should be expected, but this information will provide insights
into where we are and have been.
Finally, I suggest that we
annually ask each graduate student and postdoc,
"Are you interested in pursuing an academic career?" and keep track
of the responses.
I believe in this way we can
better understand what is causing us collectively to fail to achieve gender
equity in the professoriat. Shining a bright
spotlight on such measurables each year will promote
the discussion and thoughtful reappraisal of actions that I hope will lead to
real progress. Let's promote a competition among schools based on who does the
most in various ways to promote gender equity. Title IX really is not just
Of course, many more Title IX measurables could be collected and might well be
instructive. I urge, however, that the reporting process be kept simple and
concise. Sometimes less is more because everyone can concentrate on just a few
As a National Academies report,
"Rising Above the Gathering Storm" (4),
emphasized, it is vital for both the security of the U.S. and the health of our global
economy that this nation's workforce comprises the best and brightest minds.
I look forward to the day when
more women will experience the great joy I have had in exploring new frontiers
in science with young emerging scientists both male and female, celebrating
their successes, and turning their failures into something positive. The
academic life is a grand profession, and it is not just for men. The smart
application of Title IX can help demonstrate that.
Debra. "A 'Title IX' Challenge to Academic Chemistry-Isn't a Millennium of
Affirmative Action for White Men Sufficient?" Women in the Chemical
Workforce, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000, pp
2. GAO report 04-639:
"Gender Issues: Women's Participation in the Sciences Has Increased, but
Agencies Need To Do More To Ensure Compliance with Title IX," www.gao.gov/new.items/d04639.pdf.
V. "Why So Slow?" Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.
4. "Rising Above the
Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America
for a Brighter Economic Future," Washington,
D.C.: National Academies Press,
N. Zare is the
Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science and chair of the
department of chemistry at Stanford
University. He can be
reached by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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