Obama and women in US Science: Be Still My heart

Could  the President of the United States actually care about whether women get a fair deal if they aspire  to undertake scientific research in a university!?!  Omigod.   I never thought I’d see the day.

So here’s how that’s going.  Title IX asserts,

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.

Though there isn’t any qualification in the statement characterizing Title IX, it has been applied  principally to athletics.  But now the President of the United States appears committed, through his statements while campaigning and more recent events, to applying Title IX to university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields). 

We do have to introduce a little reality into this.  The fact is that the United States has a huge problem.  It is widely agreed that our  economic health (such as it now is) depends on innovations and inventions.  It is also widely agreed that these in turn require a flourishing base in basic research.  And basic research is done largely in universities.   BUT fewer and fewer  US white guys are interested in doing basic research in univesities.  Lots of science grad schools are  filling up with non-citizens, but lots of important positions are  restricted to citizens.  Yikes!  A crisis.  So the ranks have to be opened to non-males, non-whites.  And given the university setting, with people already aboard getting to decide who can get aboard, such diversifying has not been easy.

So Obama thinks the government is going to have to step in. 

Now you’d think we have all there is to interpret Obama’s intentions.  We have what he says his goals are, and they are  entirely consistent with all his other statements in support of US science.  But for the  right wing that is definitely not enough.  They see him as pretty much aiming to use Title IX to enact measures that will obviously greatly damage US science.  Maybe they are confusing him with Bush, but I don’t think so.  In fact,  I am not going to conjecture about what their motives.   It’s enough to note that it is wildly implausble that he’d work with the National Science Foundation and  all sorts of other academic groups to ruin the playing field, as opposed to making it more equal.  And, after all, if this were just about the just distribution of faculty positions, we could hope philosophy would be in his ken; I bet it isn’t.  (But maybe we should write to  him?) 

There are, of course, other worries.  If the government  requires universities to start increasing their non-male, non-white faculty in STEM fields, women hired may find that their merit will be doubted.  In fact, to some extent there  is  already pressure and there are problems.   But Obama does also talk about coordinating with programs like NSF-Advance, which is working hard to invest in universities so that at least the STEM faculty start to realize in how many ways their decisions and practices result in an unjust distribution of educational benefits and opportunities.

Let me close with a cautionary tale and a quote. 

The tale:  JJ-partner is a university scientist who was in charge of a very large multi-field conference.  This was about 5 years ago.   The contributed papers, on which names did appear, ** were sent out to researchers around the country, who were asked to put them in one of 4 categories, according to merit.  The result was that all the papers by women were ranked in the bottom quarter.  JJ-partner had the  final say and could tell, he says, that the rankings of women were terribly skewed.  So he changed it. 

That’s what can go on.   In contrast, as the AACU says,

In too much of the discussion of participation, there is an implication that the activities to diversify STEM are being offered solely for the [benefit of] underrepresented groups. To the contrary, the disciplines have a major stake in opening up their canons and concepts to new perspectives. The society, the nation, and the planet need the multiplicity of approaches that diverse practitioners bring. No country can long afford to waste more than half of its talent pool.


**The merit of a lot of science work depends on factual claims about equipment and results which cannot be well assessed if names are omitted.  That was the  case in the general area in question.

And thanks to NFAH, a reader, who alerted us to the issues.  I apologize for perhaps not being as cautious as you.

6 thoughts on “Obama and women in US Science: Be Still My heart

  1. Yes this is spectacular. It is good to know that the fight is moving forward and that we have a president who listens to science and cares that its practice is equitable.

    Christina Hoff Sommers’ Washington Post oped that you link to is a breathtakingly example of rhetorically powerful backlash against Title IX, and Obama and Congresswoman Johnson’s work to improve the situation for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. Here is a particularly frustrating example from that article:

    “Some seem to relish the idea of starkly disrupting what they regard as the excessively male and competitive culture of academic science. American scientific excellence, though, is an invaluable and irreplaceable resource. The fields that will be most affected — math, engineering, physics and computer science — are vital to the economy and national defense. Is it wise, to say nothing of urgent, for the president and Congress to impose an untested, undebated gender parity policy at this time? ”

    Sentence one: The reason why they (me) regard the culture of academic science as excessively male is because it is.

    While women have made up at least half of the undergraduate student body since the 1980’s, these gains have not translated into corresponding increases in the proportion of women in the professoriate. Since the 1970’s the number of women earning doctorates has tripled while the number of women who are full-time faculty has only increased by 1.6 times (West and Curtis 2006). At every stage of professional development a higher proportion of women faculty than men faculty leave the academy (NAS 2007, West and Curtis 2006).
    Women faculty members tend to be concentrated in less prestigious institutions, at lower ranks and in less secure positions. According the National Academy of Sciences, at top research institutions, only 15.4 percent of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8 percent in the life sciences are women. The authors go on to write, ‘these are the only fields in science and engineering where the proportion of women reaches into the double digits. Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are virtually absent from the nation’s leading science and engineering departments’ (NAS 2007, S-2). Currently, 30 percent of women faculty members are in non-tenure track jobs, while only 18 percent of men faculty members hold these positions (West and Curtis 2006). At doctoral granting institutions, full time women faculty members are only half as likely to be tenured as full time men faculty members (West and Curtis 2006).

    Then there is the assumption connecting sentence one and two:That increasing the proportion of women in academic sciences will threaten US scientific excellence. Wow. What we do know is that excellent women are being driven out, their talent and training lost to the cause of US scientific excellence. Not to mention the cases where the increase of women in sciences has lead to significant advances (ex see Haraway 1989 on primatology, or Patricia Gowaty’s 2003 Signs discussion of how feminism helps her science). And of course there are the feminist social epistemology arguments (ex. Longino 1990, 2002) about how diversity can work to increase scientific rigor.

    And finally there are the concerns about an “untested, undebated gender parity policy.” First, if you read what Obama has said, there is nothing about enforcing a gender parity policy, it is about removing barriers for women and people of color. Second, it _is_ rigorously debated and there is a lively and growing body of research that doing this testing. The NSF ADVANCE program is designed to do this sort of testing and those grants are just as competitive as other NSF programs.

  2. Well, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s untested or not – that whole thing is a canard. When things are going ill, people use it as in this case: “things are so bad that we can’t take the risk!” When things are going well, people basically say the same thing: “things are going well, we shouldn’t introduce risk!” But this is stupid, because then you never take any risks and nothing ever changes.

    Not that I disagree about it actually having been tested, or about how it’s empirically as well as theoretically a good idea, it’s just that this isn’t a real argument. It’s sophistry, basically, and I get tired of hearing it.

  3. I cannot begin to tell you the deep gratitude I have for this work online! I just love it when the statistics are so well documented [that] even over 25 years later …the same fact is true (P.3:”While women have made up at least half of the undergraduate student body since the 1980’s, these gains have not translated into corresponding increases in the proportion of women in the professoriate.”); and given this blatant example, we have no other choice, but to continue the work; publish the work; and educate thru all mediums.

  4. KE: Thank you on behalf of Alphafeminist. She has a lot of expertise in the area; you are getting the real deal!

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