Monday, January 07, 2008

STEM Week Day 1: Engineering: A Title IX Issue?

The December issue of the ASCD’s Education Update focuses on the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark federal law that opened up the doors for women to have equal opportunity in athletics and education. It’s a good law that needed to happen, but I’m curious about where the ASCD sees things going. From the newsletter (p. 3):

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and other organizations are employing Title IX to ensure that women are equally represented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In February 2007, Michelle Tortolani, then SWE president-elect, asked at the National Association of Multicultural Engineering national conference, “Why, while girls comprise 55 percent of undergraduate students, do they account for only 20 percent of engineering majors, and boys remain four times more likely to enroll in undergraduate engineering programs?”

Two Congressional briefings have focused on strengthening the STEM workforce by asking this question: Are more women and members of diverse groups needed in the STEM workforce? Resoundingly, SWE says “Yes” and offers the following recommendations:

*Policymakers should step up enforcement of Title IX with regard to STEM disciplines and fund programs that will help educate students, their parents, and STEM faculty of their rights under the law.

*Educational institutions should fulfill their obligations under the law; examine their institutional policies, procedures, or practices for gender bias; provide suggestions for areas to examine when evaluating programs for gender bias; and make this information accessible to the public.

*Federal funding agencies should fulfill their monitoring and enforcement obligations under the law, and make this information available to the public.
I know that as a male I’m probably better off running as fast as I can and as far as I can from anything having to do with Title IX, but on the face of it there’s a lot of problems that I see here.

The first is the difference between a bias of design and a bias of choice. If a program is structured in such a way that people are excluded on the basis of their gender or race, that’s immoral and should be addressed. It’s a different matter, though, when those of one gender tend to gravitate towards a career more than those of the other as a matter of choice. If more men are drawn to the engineering life, with it’s nerdy stereotype and long hours, is that a problem of the system, of the sexes, or of the society?

We have an example in our own field—elementary teachers are almost 90% women. With its family friendly policies and the chance to work with kids, that’s not a surprise. What it’s also not is discrimination, and anyone arguing that it is would be wrong.

Programs that expose girls to the STEM fields, like those that come across the WSTA listserv? Excellent! This nascent suggestion that we should have proportionality in the college programs, because equal must be inherently more fair? That’s an idea that takes us down a weird, exclusionary road that we’re better off not traveling.

And let’s also acknowledge that there’s a bias on the pro-girl side as well. In a section on the ongoing challenges associated with Title IX we find:

Young women represent the vast majority of students enrolled in high school cosmetology, child care, and health assistant courses. Child care workers earn a median salary of $7.43 per hour, while cosmetologists earn a median salary of $8.49 per hour.
We need good child care workers every bit as much as we need engineers. That the ASCD would tie the worth of the job to the pay is a sad statement of the priorities that we’ve established as a society, and shame on them for taking the bait. That someone could make more in engineering than hairdressing is a given, but why imply that there’s something wrong with wanting to be a hairdresser?

For anyone interested in gender equity in the mathematics and sciences, this is an article well worth finding.

Is there a problem with males being over represented in the STEM fields? How would you solve it?

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