The need for more women in STEM has become a mantra, accepted as a truism and blamed on sexism and the discouragement of women from participating in science education rather than women exercising their agency in choosing to focus their education elsewhere. The result has been an array of mechanisms to encourage women to major in STEM subjects.
A new study released Tuesday found that 84% of about 220 universities offer single-gender scholarships, many of them in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. That practice is permitted under Title IX only if the “overall effect” of scholarships is equitable. The study, by a Maryland-based nonprofit advocating gender equity on college campuses, showed the majority of campus awards lopsidedly benefited women.
In California, for instance, 11 colleges and universities reviewed offered 117 scholarships for women and four for men, according to the survey by Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. The group was originally founded to lobby for due process rights for those accused of campus sexual misconduct, who are overwhelmingly male — and launched the current project challenging single-gender programs in January.
But single-sex scholarships are just part of the regime change, and the facts may be surprising in light of the narrative.
In university hiring, a 2015 study by Cornell University found that hypothetical female applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships were favored, 2 to 1, over male counterparts.
Then there are the federally funded conferences.
The January “Women in Mathematics and Public Policy” workshop focused on cybersecurity and climate change and specified on a flier that “only women will be invited to participate.” The “Collaborative Workshop for Women in Mathematical Biology” was held in June to focus on biological and medical questions. Its flier specifically welcomed female but not male graduate students, recent PhDs and other researchers.
A complaint was filed about these, not by a male but a female academic who thought it just a bit too flagrantly sexist to have conferences directed only to women,and to the exclusion of men.
The professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation, said she worked with UC professors to file the complaint to push back against what she described as an erosion of meritocracy and growing favoritism of women in the sciences. As a mentor to college students of all genders, she said, she sees more men becoming discouraged about their chances of success in the field.
Has the pendulum swung too far? Was the pendulum the problem at all? There is an underlying belief that the reason women have not been represented in STEM in proportion to their percentages, whether in the general population or the population of college students who could select a STEM major, is sexism, whether in creating interest in public schools so that they want to be scientists when they go to college or in the misogynistic nature of this erstwhile male-dominated field.
After all, women now constitute the majority of students in college and graduate school, and it’s hard for the minority to oppress the majority. It’s harder still to justify singe-sex scholarships and programs designed to entice the majority to be even more of a majority. And yet, women remain somewhat under-represented in STEM fields,
Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center argued that such female-focused programs are allowed under Title IX as permissible affirmative action to overcome conditions that resulted in “limited participation” of one gender in a particular educational program. She blasted the growing national wave of complaints alleging that men are being treated unfairly under Title IX — most prominently in sexual misconduct cases and now in STEM programs.
This begs the question of whether the claimed “limited participation” is the product of “conditions” or something else. The presumption is that it has to be conditions, some failure along the educational spectrum that pushes women away, or they would obviously be better represented in STEM. This is grounded in the untouchable argument that there can be no differences between the sexes that aren’t sexist, so it’s not only inconceivable, but sexist, to suggest that any lack of women in engineering, for example, could reflect anything but the choice made by women.
“The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction,” said Everett Bartlett, the organization’s president who plans to file federal complaints against about 185 campuses if they don’t sufficiently respond to questions about the scholarship practices. “We’re not a society based on quotas, we’re a society based on fairness,” Bartlett said.
The problem is that no one knows what “fairness” means. Quotas are easy to figure, as you count heads (or some other part of the anatomy) and calculate whether the outcome conforms to your assumptions.
In a less sex-obsessed society, the notion of single-gender scholarships and conferences dedicated to getting more women into, and more men out of (because there are only so many seats in a classroom and this becomes a zero-sum game) STEM might be sufficient to make everyone take a breath and consider whether women, like men, get to choose what they want to do with their lives.
“We need to be skeptical … of any segregation projects,” [Erin Buzuvis, a Title IX expert and law professor at Western New England University] said, “because the risk of treating people unequally on the basis of sex is promoting stereotypes.”
There has never been a time when the STEM Academy has done more to accommodate and provide incentives for women to major in STEM. Short of kidnapping gender studies majors and forcing them to take physics, what’s left to be done?
At some point, the reality of the majority of college students making their own choices has to be respected, even if it doesn’t produce the outcomes feminist theory says it should. In the meantime, there are men from poor families for whom there are no scholarships to be had who want desperately to be engineers.