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Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

A Bad Idea Gets Worse



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A paragraph in the latest issue of our print magazine mentions the current push to apply Title IX (most famous for letting federal bureaucrats micromanage college athletic departments) to science programs, then asks,“Will the National Endowment for the Humanities be conducting similar inquiries in respect of art-history classes, which are frequently more than 80 percent female?” That’s just one thing wrong with the witch-hunt for sex bias in technical fields: It ignores the stubborn fact that women and men tend to be interested in different things, and therefore (as has been extensively ventilated on this blog recently) tend to excel at different things. John Tierney has also discussed these issues recently in the New York Times.

Another problem with the analogy between sports and science is that the purpose of college sports is (supposedly, and in most cases actually) to give students a chance to participate. The output, in terms of wins and losses, is secondary. From a research perspective, however, the purpose of a science department is not participation but results: To produce the best possible science. (This applies to science on a graduate and post-graduate level; undergraduate enrollments are not at issue in this dispute.) Students and researchers are invited to participate not for their own enjoyment and personal growth, as is the case with a field-hockey team, but for the benefit of the department and the discipline as a whole.

It’s questionable whether the government has any business telling colleges how many athletes of which gender they must have, especially when it is well-documented that women are less interested in sports than men. If, however, you do decide to make the genders of your athletes fit a quota, you aren’t interfering with the goal of the athletic department, since participation itself is the goal. All you’re doing is letting the government, instead of the institution, decide who will benefit — a bad idea, but not a crazy one. But when you require a university to hire scientific researchers based on considerations other than talent, you are interfering with the goal of the department. That’s crazy.

The problem with instituting gender quotas in science is yet another example of the basic paradox of feminism: The conflicting assumptions that (1) gender bias is pervasive in our society, and affects women from childhood, but (2) any unequal outcome can be blamed on the immediate decision-makers — for example, those who hire or make college-admissions decisions. Back in the 1980s Rosalind Rosenberg and Alice Kessler-Harris slugged it out over this question in the Sears case, in which the EEOC accused the retailer of restricting women to lower-paid sales jobs. Rosenberg testified that for a host of reasons, women tended to have different interests and personalities from men, so by hiring more men for high-pressure sales positions, Sears was simply reflecting reality: Men were better at those jobs. Kessler-Harris testified against Sears in that case, and most of the feminist profession (though not the judge) agreed with her that if Sears did not hire women and men at roughly equal rates for high-paying jobs, it was actively practicing sexism, not merely reacting to its existence.

Returning to Title IX, from a statistical standpoint, as Tierney points out, the case seems clear. Disparities between male and female scholars occur on the supply side: In most technical fields, fewer qualified women than men decide to pursue graduate study. Therefore, the discrepancy cannot be blamed (if there is any blame involved) on the institutions themselves; they are merely choosing the best candidates from the pool of interested applicants. Will academic scientists, famous for their logical thinking and dedication to truth, rise up against Title IX and defend their independence? Will they refuse to let bureaucrats and bean counters tell them who to admit and hire?

Not likely. Doing so would require academics to admit that there really are differences between men and women — and not just to admit that fact, but to demonstrate and defend it. That would make them mighty unpopular around the faculty club, particularly when their colleagues start to consider where such dangerous ideas could lead. It’s much safer to invoke the specter of universal sexism and try to buy off the hard-core feminists with, say, an oversight committee or two, a few affirmative-action post-doc positions, and maybe even a professorship. (And, of course, to make such accommodations mandatory for all institutions, so that everyone will be similarly handicapped.) Even the most rational scientists have irrational beliefs that they cling to — particularly those who spend all their time in academia — and it’s much easier to perform a little ritual self-flagellation and indulge in an easy bit of penance than to discard the leftist world-view that has shaped their entire lives.


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