STEM-ming college gender quotas

George Leef Director of Research, The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
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Increased “gender equity” in higher education is a long-time goal of feminists. Their new target is science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM disciplines.

Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments forbids colleges and universities that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of gender. The most notable impact of Title IX has been on college sports.

But as President Obama recently said, “Title IX isn’t just about sports.” It also applies, he said, to “inequality in math and science education, and a broader range of fields including engineering and technology.” In short, the president wants to see more women earning STEM degrees.

Soon afterwards, the White House issued new guidelines for the enforcement of Title IX with particular emphasis on ensuring “equal access to educational programs and resources in STEM fields” for women.

Specifically, there will be a new initiative involving several agencies, intended to clarify schools’ “compliance obligations and ways to improve access and outreach” in STEM.

The question is: Where will that lead?

Although Title IX doesn’t require gender quotas in sports, the interpretation put on its language by both the education bureaucracy and the courts led to quotas. Colleges and universities realized that the safest route for them, to avoid costly battles with the government, was to have approximately equal numbers of men and women on their sports teams.

The new pressure on colleges and universities over Title IX compliance in STEM likely will have the same result.

When a number of commentators made that observation, the Department of Education responded that the new guidelines did not require gender quotas and that it had no plans to impose them.

Unfortunately, federal regulations can lead to quotas even when they’re not explicitly mandated: That’s the lesson of Title IX in sports.

Feminist groups complain about “gender inequities” in higher education even though significantly more women now earn college degrees than men. But only 17 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in physics and computer science go to women. And only 12 percent of engineering professors are women.

To feminists, such “underrepresentation” of women in these STEM fields is ipso facto evidence of discrimination — and demands government action. Realistically, however, it’s hard to see any problem at all, much less one that calls for quotas.

Where the White House and others are wrong is their mistaken belief that individuals act as “representatives” of groups (gender, racial, religious or any other), rather than making individual choices based on abilities and preferences.

It’s incorrect, therefore, to say that women are “underrepresented” in computer science. The women (and men) who go into that field do so because it suits them as individuals. If Jill Smith earns a degree in computer science, she isn’t “representing” females in the population. She did it for herself.

It is no more inequitable that most physics and computer science students are male than it is that most biology and education students are female. Nature isn’t perfectly random, so we should not expect equal percentages of men and women in every aspect of human endeavor.

But there are people who like to make an issue out of statistical “imbalances” and their efforts are damaging. Individual merit is subordinated to the mania over group equality.

Think about the consequences if anything like Title IX’s effect on sports is replicated in STEM as a result of guidelines that are supposed to “ensure participation of women and girls.”

College officials might decide to reject some male applicants with strong backgrounds for engineering school to avoid the appearance of bias against women, and admit some women with weaker academic profiles so they can show more “participation.”

Equalizing the number of men and women in the STEM fields will not make society any fairer or better.

We shouldn’t care about the sex of the people who research and design things, only that they are highly intelligent, have an affinity for the STEM disciplines, and are motivated to research and design. Gender quotas would change this dynamic, and not for the better.

George Leef is director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (www.popecenter.org), Raleigh, N.C.