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Commentary By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Title IX For Math and Science?

Education Pre K-12

President Obama thinks that not enough American women study math and science. And he’s decided that the government should do something about it. The president wants to expand so-called gender parity under federal law beyond college athletics to courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

A proposal to apply so-called Title IX gender-equality to math and science courses and majors was discussed at a White House conference on June 23, the anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 amendment that applied the 1964 Civil Rights Act to women in varsity sports.

In a White House statement entitled “Bringing Title IX to Classrooms and Labs,” Jessie DeAro, Senior Policy Analyst at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote, “Title IX has been credited for dramatic increases in the participation of women and girls in athletic programs; however, Title IX also covers equity in educational programs... Title IX was passed to ensure women and girls were not excluded from any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.”

A threshold issue is how successfully to apply existing gender-equity law on behalf of women beyond varsity sports to other areas. An inter-agency working group coordinated by the Justice Department is exploring this question.

This looks like a solution - more government intervention in higher education - in search of a problem. While it’s true that fewer undergraduate women than men major in STEM courses, there’s no evidence that universities deny women equal opportunity to choose these fields of study - which, according to the Labor Department, can lead to lower earnings than careers in law, finance, and medicine.

Many of the most admired and successful women in America - Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi - did not get degrees in STEM. Stated differently, a STEM degree is not in and of itself a necessary step to success in America. Some college graduates with STEM degrees are today unemployed. If a STEM degree is neither necessary nor sufficient to progress in America, why is the government pushing this issue at all?

The answer is the uncontrollable urge of government to tell people what to do and how to run their lives. Washington knows better than ordinary Americans, or so we are told, and we ordinary Americans had better listen up.

Title IX has been interpreted to mean that universities accepting federal funds for any purpose - and almost all receive research funding - cannot have more male athletes than female, even though more men than women generally want to play varsity sports. The result is that many men have not been able to participate in intercollegiate athletics, and many men’s teams, ranging from wrestling to fencing and even football have been terminated to reduce the number of varsity men so as to achieve “gender parity.”

Title IX wasn’t intended to require quotas, but in 1997 the courts left universities with no choice but to adopt a proportionality standard for college sports if they wished to avoid lawsuits. If 40% of the students are female, then 40% of the varsity sports slots have to go to women.

So far the Department of Education has applied Title IX only to sports. But the interagency task force is examining expansion to STEM courses. Agencies participating include NASA, the Departments of Energy and Education, and the National Science Foundation.

NASA states on its Web site that it has not received any Title IX complaints, yet it has produced a manual, “Title IX and STEM,” listing what it calls “best practices” for educational institutions and holding up these practices to other universities.

For example, NASA recommends that a Title IX coordinator be a member of a university’s highest decision-making body and meet “weekly with the university president, provost, vice presidents, and deans.”

The Coordinator should be assisted by a full-time Gender Equity Specialist to receive complaints. Staff from her office should be deployed to departments, labs, and centers of the university to observe “environments for morale and climate issues with both employees and students.” One best practice is to fund departments based on the diversity of the student population.

But there is a larger picture to behold. Women receive about 50% of medical and 45% of dentistry degrees, fields they have chosen to enter. In biology and biomedical sciences they receive more degrees than men, namely 59% of B.A.s, 58% of M.A.s, and 50% of PhDs. The women’s unemployment rate is more than two percentage points lower than men’s.

No mention by the Title IX lieutenants of whether men are deprived of taking literature, music, art, psychology, and biology by larger numbers of female majors. Why stop at math and science?

Clearly, women have been able to enter and prosper in previously male-dominated fields. Why, then, are women still “underrepresented” - if that is the right word - in some sciences, math, engineering, and technology?

Some women may avoid these fields because of their high math content. Boys have always scored higher than girls on math aptitude tests. In 1979 boys scored on average 43 points higher than girls on the SAT, declining to 35 points in the mid-1990s, a difference that persisted through 2009.

Absent demonstrated gender discrimination, it’s unwise to try to artificially increase the number of women in these fields through federal regulation, just as government should not try to channel men into communications and biology.

American universities now give qualified students, regardless of gender and race, equal opportunities and encouragement to choose fields of study. Our university system is admired throughout the world, and foreigners flock to America to enroll. There’s no better way to destroy our universities than artificially ensuring gender parity in math and science.

This piece originally appeared in RealClearMarkets

This piece originally appeared in RealClearMarkets