I recently ran across the news that there are groups pushing to expand Title IXs reach in to the STEM fields. The theory is that Title IX should not just apply to sports, and that since such a great gender disparity exists in (some) STEM fields, they are a prime target for reform.
As a female with an engineering degree, I am appalled by this. That is the polite way of saying it. If you didn't get that, let me spell it out for you: To all the lawyers, women's studies, sociology and other liberal arts majors out there who haven't taken a real science class since high school yet think you know anything about math or science education.....KEEP YOUR GODDAMN HANDS OFF MY DEGREE.
We mocked you in college. We watched you party it up, day after day, bragging about how you turned in term papers on books you didn't read, and how little work you had to do to get by. We grit our teeth and hunkered down, knowing that some day we'd at least launch in to better jobs that fit our passions and truly helped move the world along, and we'd make better money to boot. We took pride in the fact that we were the few who chose a harder path, and that our degrees actually meant we learned something. Now, the very people we looked down on are coming to "save" us. Fantastic.
Is it not enough that we as a group already keep America from sliding even further down the math and science score list? Now you want to accuse all the men I went to school with or got taught and mentored by of being sexist? To suggest that they are not where they are because they were some of the best and brightest but because they systematically excluded women? What are you saying about me? That I'm some sort of victim who didn't know it? That my anger at you is merely Stockholm syndrome? Let me clue you in to something: the only people who ever made me feel bad about my love of math, science or computers were those who didn't love math, science or computers. The only people who ever suggested that math might be too hard for me, were those for whom math was too hard for. For as much lip service as we pay to the value of STEM fields, plenty of people think you're weird if calculating 5 times 7 isn't a challenge without a calculator. None of these people are male engineers.
That's the emotional part of my argument. Here's the rational part (you can tell it's rational, because I'm putting it in list form...that's some engineer logic right there).
- The people attempting to push women in to STEM fields often have no idea what STEM fields are actually like. Penelope Trunk, a blogger who has started three different companies, wrote a great piece a while ago about how it drives her nuts when journalists and academics bemoan the lack of women in tech start up. One of her major points was that these women have never lived that life, despite it being available to them, and how dare they then imply that other women should take a path they didn't?
- No one has proven that the disparity in STEM majors is because of sexism on the college level. Not much more to say except:
- The implication that women don't go in to STEM fields because of sexism is stupid. And asinine. And naive. When I was looking in to engineering programs, I was treated very well. So were all of my classmates. Engineers are not an exclusive bunch. Very few of us were popular in high school, and it shows. You're actually interested in talking about what we're talking about? Come on in! I have rarely, if ever, heard anyone of either gender say "I wanted to be an engineer, but no program would accept me". I actually will buy that there's sexism in math and science teaching, but not at the college level. By the time you get to the college level, you already know if you like math and science or you don't. If discrimination is happening, it's happening at the super female dominated elementary/middle school/high school level. Title IX will do nothing but punish universities for issues that started much earlier.
- Title IX is too limited in scope to address the real problems. I think workplaces in America should be more family friendly. Whether people are taking care of young kids, or aging parents, everyone needs a break sometimes. I'm not advocating any legislation to address this, just saying that in general I'd love to see a bigger push for it for workers of all ages and both genders. I'd also like to see better more engaging science and math education for middle school and high schoolers. Also, I'd like someone to give me a pony. Any of those plans could (hypothetically) could increase the number of women in STEM jobs. Title IX can't touch either of those points, or the pony thing. If we've learned one thing from Title IXs first run, it's that you can get more women playing sports, but you can't make female professional athletes as wealthy as men. Sometimes the world just is what it is, and forcing colleges to do things differently can only go so far if they weren't the problem to begin with.
- STEM fields are something you have to know you want to enter immediately, or you've missed the boat. This is a bit of a weird one, but stay with me. For my engineering degree, I was required to take 6 classes that were not engineering. That's all I got to pick over 4 years. From the moment you enter engineering to the moment you graduate, your whole degree is spelled out for you. If you enter college thinking you like psych, but then deciding that physics was more your thing, you cannot transfer in to it without adding years on to your graduation date. Transfer the other way however, and you will be just fine. This means the spigot out of engineering always flows faster than spigot in. It's why my class started at 200 and ended at 60. Even enrolling 50/50 men and women would not stop more women from dropping out, and that's very hard to compensate for midstream.
- STEM fields were always more impervious to bias, because there are definite right and wrong answers. I remember a programming class I took in college had a rule: if the code doesn't compile, you get an F. Once it compiled, you were guaranteed a "C", and from there every requirement you hit moved your grade up. It didn't matter if you were male, female, or something from Mars, there was no leeway in your grade. You knew every grade ahead of time, based on what your code could and couldn't do. My professor could have been running men's rights groups out of his office, and with standards like that, he would have had a tough time putting any bias in the grade. I've heard hundreds of stories from liberal arts majors about wonky grading from professors, but very few from engineers. Engineers are more likely to come out saying that the class average was a 16%, so now anyone who got more than a 25% has an A. It's wacky, but pretty egalitarian.
- Adding more women will not improve engineering, improving engineering education will improve engineering. This NYT piece was widely forwarded and shared among my friends from undergrad. Why? Because it eloquently states that engineering degrees kind of suck to get. They're hard, you get bad grades a lot, they can be boring, and the courses attempt to "weed you out" often gratuitously (lots of dues paying type activities). The "math-science death march" is a real phenomena, and as someone who survived it I can categorically say the name is descriptive. No one enjoys the first two years of an engineering degree....they survive them. It pushes unqualified people out, but it pushes good people out too. I refuse to believe that this is the only workable system. Engineers don't think that way about anything else....why give up so easily in education? Pour the money in to making the whole system better, then everyone will have more fun.
- Focusing on women can be bad for men. After this news broke, it was quickly pointed out that this focus on women in STEM had to be really selective in it's concern. Women absolutely flock to certain STEM professions....biology, vet medicine, pharmacy, allied health, nursing. My mother and sister are nurses, and tend to get a bit put out that nursing seems to not be counted as STEM unless specifically pointed out. In April, I went to a conference that showed some preliminary research that groups function best when the gender distribution is somewhere between 30/70 and 70/30. Too many or too few of either gender can skew a field. If we're going to claim the benefits of diversity, that has to work both ways. Some of this emphasis is getting in to really creepy "women must dominate everything worth having" territory, and it scares me. No one would care about engineering if it didn't have a good paycheck attached.
- Focusing on women can be bad for women. As I read people's reactions to this news this weekend, I read a lot of awful misogynistic things being said in the comments sections. I'm sure many will take this as proof that sexism really is at play here, and that this reform needs to happen. I don't see it that way. What I do see is that you're telling one group (men) that they didn't really earn what they got, and that another group (women) inherently deserves it more. This gets people defensive, and makes them say really lousy things to prove why they really did deserve it more. Now, rather than talking about how we could really improve all of this, it reframes the whole conversation as a gender debate. This leads people to make huge generalizations about gender, which almost never ends well for anybody. Women claim men are all power hungry pigs, hoarding the good jobs for themselves. Men start claiming women are inherently less dedicated, less technically minded, less intelligent, etc etc. Honestly, most people of both genders would make terrible engineers. That's fine. That's why the pay tends to be good. Even in a perfect world, we would most likely see gender disparities in many professions. That's also fine. Let's not paint 3.5 billion people with one brush in an attempt to obscure the fact that sometimes people just make different choices for reasons that vary as much as 3.5 billion people can vary.
I could go on. I haven't even begin to touch on whether or not STEM degrees are really the golden ticket people presume, whether fostering sexist thinking in undergrad will worsen the plight of female professionals by ensuring that the men they work with will have a chip on their shoulder, or several other points that could be made. I'm stopping here though because I'm sick of thinking about this. It's hard to see something I love reduced to a political bargaining chip. While I do agree that more gender parity (at least to the 30/70 level) is a good goal, I'm confident that there are non legislative methods for getting that up that would cause few unintended consequences. In a time when our universities are churning out thousands of useless degrees to people with quickly expanding debt, should our number one priority really be to muck around with one of the few areas that's doing reasonably okay?