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Quotas Limiting Male Science Enrollment: The New Liberal War on Science

Quotas limiting the number of male students in science may be imposed by the Education Department in 2013. The White House has promised that "new guidelines will also be issued to grant-receiving universities and colleges" spelling out "Title IX rules in the science, technology, engineering and math fields." These guidelines will likely echo existing Title IX guidelines that restrict men's percentage of intercollegiate athletes to their percentage in overall student bodies, thus reducing the overall number of intercollegiate athletes. (Under the three-part Title IX test created by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, where I used to work, colleges are allowed to temporarily comply by increasing the number of female athletes rather than cutting the number of male athletes, but the only viable permanent way to comply with its rule is to restrict men’s participation relative to women’s participation, reducing overall participation.) Thus, as Charlotte Allen notes, the Obama administration's guidelines are likely to lead to "science quotas" based on gender.

Earlier, writing in Newsweek, President Obama celebrated the fact that 25 percent fewer men than women graduate from college, calling it a "great accomplishment" for America. Ironically, he lamented the fact that a smaller gender disparity -- 17 percent fewer women attending college than men -- had once existed before Title IX was implemented. To Obama, gender disparities are only bad when they disfavor women. Under his strange idea of equality, equality means men losing out to women.

Obama hinted that Title IX quotas would soon come to engineering and techology, saying that "Title IX isn’t just about sports," but also about "inequality in math and science education" and "a much broader range of fields, including engineering and technology. I’ve said that women will shape the destiny of this country, and I mean it."

Christina Hoff Sommers wrote earlier about this looming liberal war on science. Based on a campaign promise Obama made to feminist groups in October 2008, Sommers foresaw the Obama Administration moving to artificially cap male enrollment in math and science classes to achieve gender proportionality — the way that Title IX currently caps male participation in intercollegiate athletics. The result could be a substantial reduction in the number of scientists graduating from America’s colleges and universities.

Critics have long argued that the Title IX cap on men's athletic participation is in tension with the Supreme Court’s warnings against proportional representation. In a ruling by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court said that it is “completely unrealistic” to argue that women and minorities should be represented in each field or activity “in lockstep proportion to their representation in the local population.” (See Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989)). In an earlier ruling, Justice O’Connor noted that it is “unrealistic to assume that unlawful discrimination is the sole cause of people failing to gravitate to jobs and employers in accord with the laws of chance.” (See Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust Co. (1988).)

But the Title IX athletics regulation mandates proportional representation. It contains three alternatives for compliance, but two of them are illusory in the long run. The first way (and only permanent way) to comply is to adopt a quota that artificially caps male participation. The second and third ways, which are only short-term fixes, involve continuous expansion of participation by, or satisfaction of all desire to compete by, the “underrepresented” sex. In a world of finite resources, these latter two ways can only work for a short period of time. In light of this fact, courts have rejected lawsuits by men's teams cut by colleges to achieve proportionality (that is, quotas), concluding that such quotas are required by Title IX, which thus overrides any rights the men's teams might otherwise enjoy.  See, e.g., Miami University Wrestling Club v. Miami University, 302 F.3d 608 (6th Cir. 2002).

I used to work at the agency, the Office for Civil Rights, which administers that regulation, and I think that it would be a grave mistake to apply its standards, which were designed for allocating resources among all-male and all-female sports teams, to the very different context of math and science classes, which are coed. It is one thing to apply gender-based proportionality rules to single-sex teams, which are already themselves intrinsically gender-based. It is quite another to apply them to classes in science and math that are open to all students, regardless of gender, and are supposed to be gender-blind, not gender-specific or gender-based. Doing so is simply unconstitutional.

Courts have generally forbidden state colleges to engage in gender-balancing in areas other than intercollegiate athletics. For example, a federal judge struck down the University of Georgia's use of gender in admissions to promote gender balance, ruling it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. See Johnson v. Board of Regents of the University of Georgia, 106 F. Supp.2d 1362 (S.D. Ga 2000).  An attempt by the Obama Education Department to impose gender quotas in math and scientific fields would be equally unconstitutional.  See Lamprecht v. FCC, 958 F.2d 382 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (FCC's gender preferences for women violated the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment, despite FCC's appeal to "diversity"); Back v. Carter, 933 F.Supp. 738 (N.D. Ind. 1996) (invalidating gender-balance requirement for government board).

The fact that fewer women than men major in science and engineering is the result of their own voluntary choices, not sexism or sex discrimination by schools, notes researcher John Rosenberg, the proud father of a daughter who got a Ph.D. from CalTech. My daughter is bright, and I'd be happy if she got a graduate degree in engineering (or became a physicist, like her grandfather), but I can't force her to do that if she doesn't want to, and a college shouldn't be deemed liable for sex discrimination against women if women like her don't want to study engineering.

Gender disparities in a major are not the product of sexism, but rather the differing preferences of men and women. The fact that engineering departments are filled mostly with men does not mean they discriminate against women anymore than the fact that English departments are filled mostly with women proves that English departments discriminate against men. The arts and humanities have well over 60 percent female students, yet no one seems to view that gender disparity as a sign of sexism against men. Deep down, the Obama administration knows this, since it is planning to impose its gender-proportionality rules only on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), not other fields that have similarly large gender disparities in the opposite direction.

Many women are quite capable of mastering high-level math and science, but simply don't find working in such a field all that interesting. As Dr. Sommers notes, many “colleges already practice affirmative action for women in science,” rather than discriminating against them. Susan Pinker, a clinical psychologist, chronicled cases of women who "abandoned successful careers in science and engineering to work in fields like architecture, law and education," because they wanted jobs that involved more interaction with people, "not because they had faced discrimination in science." Far from being discouraged by society from pursuing a career in math or science, these women had been strongly encouraged to pursue such a  a career: “Once they showed aptitude for math or physical science, there was an assumption that they’d pursue it as a career even if they had other interests or aspirations. And because these women went along with the program and were perceived by parents and teachers as torch bearers, it was so much more difficult for them to come to terms with the fact that the work made them unhappy.”

As Susan Pinker notes, "A mountain of published research stretching back a hundred years shows that women are far more likely than men to be deeply interested in organic subjects---people, plants and animals---than they are to be interested in things and inanimate systems, such as electrical engineering, or computer systems."

Women are well-represented in scientific fields that involve lots of interaction with people. As The New York Times’ John Tierney noted, "Despite supposed obstacles like “unconscious bias” and a shortage of role models and mentors, women now constitute about half of medical students, 60 percent of biology majors, and 70 percent of psychology Ph.D.’s. They earn the majority of doctorates in both the life sciences and the social sciences." By contrast, "They remain a minority in the physical sciences and engineering," which deal more with inanimate objects rather than people.

These gender-based differences are not the product of discrimination, and manifest themselves at a very early age. As a book on the biology of male-female differences notes, "Girl babies in their cribs are especially inclined to stare at images of human faces, whereas infant boys are likely to find inanimate objects every bit as attractive"; "this difference persists into adulthood: when shown images of people as well as things, men tend to remember the things, and women tend to remember the people."

To the extent that gender disparities result from the differing interests of men and women, they are not "discrimination" by an institution in which they occur. See EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 839 F.2d 302 (7th Cir. 1988).

These differences, of course, are statistical averages, and are not true of every individual. (My mother is a math major who is more interested in various kinds of abstractions than I am.) No girl should be denied the opportunity to study a STEM field based on her sex; but that does not mean that colleges should adopt a gender quota for female students in math and science. Since a college cannot force a woman to go into math or science, the only way for a college to satisfy a gender quota will be to cut the number of male math and science students, by turning male students away from their favorite subject.

The  Education Department already has the power to punish colleges for discrimination in math and science under Title IX, even without any new guidelines, since the Title IX statute bans discrimination based on sex (except in certain single-sex schools) in any educational field. Based on what the Obama campaign said in 2008, many had expected the Obama Education Department to exercise that power through lengthy investigations (“compliance reviews”) of college math and science programs (such as investigating gender disparities in male vs. female enrollment rates in science classes to determine whether or not they are not the result of discrimination). But to require gender quotas in math and science — as opposed to merely banning discrimination — the Education Department will have to first issue guidelines mandating them, since these quotas are a new substantive obligation for colleges, and cannot be imposed without such notice (even putting aside the fact that they are unconstitutional).