Science subtext: Gender parity

At the White House science fair this morning, President Obama is expected to announce a new education initiative to invest $100 million into training 100,000 new teachers. Specifically, the president is trying to fend off the problem of a shortage of teachers in science, technology, engineering and math — known as STEM — in order to keep the United States competitive in the global marketplace.

While he’s not expected to talk about the dearth of women in the STEM fields, you can be sure that’s part of the larger White House agenda.

In 2007 the National Academies released Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering — the first step in an effort by the feminist lobby, lawmakers in Congress and several federal agencies to solve the “crisis” of women in science.

Last year the White House released Women in America, a report about the status of women in America today, which addressed the fact that “female students are less well-represented than men in science and technology-related fields, which typically lead to higher paying occupations.”

And in September, first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the National Science Foundation’s Career-Life Balance Initiative — a 10-year government plan to help foster improved work-life flexibility for men and women in research careers.

It’s true women remain a minority of tenured faculty in these disciplines; but understanding why is more complicated than many in Washington would have you believe. The premise over at the White House is that discrimination and a hostile work environment are the overwhelming reasons for the discrepancy between men and women in the hard sciences.

But this is a one-dimensional view of the situation. The Science on Women and Science, edited by Christina Hoff Sommers, suggests societal constraints, such as bias and discrimination, might play a role, but reminds us that we can’t discount biological differences between the sexes that help explain different preferences and aptitudes.

The fact is women are in a very strong professional position today and the gender gap in the sciences has closed significantly. As Sommers points out, “the physical sciences are the exception, not the rule.” Meaning, women are outperforming men across the board educationally, receiving more B.A.s, M.A.s and now Ph.D.s then their male counterparts. Still, I haven’t seen a government report assessing the shortage of male English majors.

While I applaud women’s successes in the sciences, and it’s important to make sure women have equal opportunity to enter these fields, efforts to “balance” out academics will likely lead to unintended consequences — much the way Title IX legislation did for athletics. Rather than equalizing the playing field, government intervention will ultimately institutionalize reverse preferences and quotas, favoring women over men.

In the end, the question remains: Is full parity in the sciences necessary for women to achieve full equality with men? Or can we finally accept that no matter how balanced the circumstances, men and women will always be different?


Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.