Politics & Policy

Against STEMinars

The House considers forcing scientists through gender-bias-awareness workshops.

‘If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s ‘workshop,’” quipped a character in a 1978 Kingsley Amis novel. What would Amis make of “STEMinars” — a term sometimes used by gender activists to describe their workshops on how to overcome bias in the science, technology, engineering, and math professions?

This Friday, as it happens, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. The overarching goal of the $85 billion act is to maintain the nation’s competitive edge in the global economy, and many of the included programs are uncontroversial: basic research funding for agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and support for programs that foster excellence in math and science education, for example.

However, the Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Amendment unanimously but quietly passed the House Science Committee on April 28. Buried deep in the act, where few can see, this little provision compels our leading academic engineers, mathematicians, information technologists, and physicists to attend equity STEMinars, and these STEMinars will not help America compete. In fact, these STEMinars have the capacity to undermine the meritocratic culture that enables America’s success in science.

The “Fulfilling Potential” amendment directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to organize gender-bias-awareness workshops and specifies that “attitudinal surveys [be] conducted on workshop participants before and after the workshops. . . . Activities shall include research presentations, and interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of gender bias.” Most members of Congress, despite their personal reservations about such workshops, know that to vote against such an amendment would trigger the wrath of the gender-bias juggernaut — an army of activists, scholars, and lawyers. (The former Harvard president Lawrence Summers is only its most famous victim.) These days, politicians and college presidents find it easier just to say yes to the gender lobby. What could be wrong with that? Let’s start with the interactive discussions.

Once the Reauthorization Act becomes law, the anti-bias “interactive theater” experiment developed at the University of Michigan will flourish. Deans and chairpersons of engineering, math, and computer-science programs will be able to demonstrate their bona fides where women are concerned (and protect their funding) by requiring faculty to watch a series of skits where insensitive, overbearing men ride roughshod over hapless but obviously intellectually superior female colleagues. The plays were inspired by a 1974 manifesto by Brazilian radical Augusto Boal in his book Theatre of the Oppressed. The federal government will not only sponsor these plays, but also provide the means to administer attitudinal surveys to measure how effectively they have altered the consciousness of the scientists in the audience.   

Gender Bias Bingo” is another initiative that will thrive once the amendment becomes law. With a $300,000 National Science Foundation “ADVANCE” grant, activist-lawyer Joan Williams and her team at the Hastings School of Law developed a website for academics called “The Gender Bias Learning Project.” The centerpiece is a bingo game. To win, a scholar submits three harrowing stories about how she or someone she knows was demeaned by clueless colleagues. According to Professor Williams, “the site is fun and funky, but it is based on science.” In fact, it is based on discredited 1970s feminist ideology and a tendentious collection of readings. “It’s better to be a bitch than a doormat,” says Williams to viewers. But why be either? And why should taxpayers be supporting a divisive and irrational program?

With the help of a $3.9 million grant, feminist psychologist Virginia Valian and her colleagues at Hunter College established the Gender Equity Project, which sponsors workshops aimed at transforming the male-centered culture of the typical laboratory. According to Valian, the compulsive work habits, single-minded dedication, and “intense desire for achievement” that typify elite scientists not only marginalize women but may also compromise good science. “If we continue to emphasize and reward always being on the job,” she says, “we will never find out whether leading a balanced life leads to equally good or better scientific work.”  

There are many women in the top echelons of American science who are no doubt privately embarrassed by interactive skits, Gender Bias Bingo, and Tutorials for Change. They may be aware that women are surpassing men in higher education. Women currently earn more than 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and more than half of Ph.Ds, and projections from the Department of Education indicate that these “college degree gaps” in favor of women will increase in the future. Today, about 50 percent of M.D.s and biology Ph.D.s are awarded to women. More than two-thirds of the doctoral degrees for psychology, veterinary medicine, and health professions go to women. If statistical disparity is evidence of discrimination, then there should be a congressional investigation into why men are scarcer than hens’ teeth in fields such as sociology, health professions, and education. Perhaps we need “SHEminars.” 

Defenders of the amendment will reply that I am selecting fanciful elements that discredit a sound policy. The serious purpose of the amendment, they maintain, is to help women in the physical sciences by applying the new research on gender bias to the laboratory. Unfortunately, these are not fanciful examples. Because of relentless lobbying from feminist pressure groups, the NSF has invested millions of dollars in these initiatives. The University of Michigan’s interactive-theater “intervention” is at the top of its list of “best practices,” and Virginia Valian is a matron saint of the STEM-equity movement.

There are indeed many studies that purport to show bias against women. But when anyone outside the STEM-equity universe reviews them, they turn out to be flawed, specious, tentative, or, if activists are involved (such as researchers from the American Association of University Women), ludicrously slanted. A recent book by Cornell psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, The Mathematics of Sex, politely demolishes studies that are routinely presented in NSF workshops as settled science. Ceci and Williams note, for example, that the MIT report that inspired the STEM-equity movement in the first place was based on research never made public. Data from a much-quoted 1997 Swedish study “proving” sexism in the peer-review process has somehow gone missing. When the NSF itself sponsored a serious gender-bias study in 2009, it found that “at many critical transition points in their academic careers (e.g., hiring for tenure-track and tenure positions and promotions) women appear to have fared as well as or better than men.”

Many would argue that America’s preeminence in science is owed, in large measure, to its uncompromising meritocratic culture. The STEM activists disagree. And the House of Representatives is poised to grant them unprecedented power to refashion the culture of academic science according to their unscientific agenda.

– Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the America Enterprise Institute. She is the author of Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys; most recently, she edited The Science on Women and Science. She has lectured and debated on more than 100 college campuses.

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