Monday, July 16, 2012

STEM and Title IX, stop me before my head explodes

I actually tried to write this post on Saturday.  I was too angry, and it turned out pretty unintelligible.  Here's take two, written after venting to my father (the lawyer who encouraged me to follow my interests in math and science).  I generally try to avoid politics on this blog, but this one hit too close to home.  If you don't want a rant, feel free to stop reading.  We'll be back as usual tomorrow.

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).

  1. 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?  
  2. No one has proven that the disparity in STEM majors is because of sexism on the college level.  Not much more to say except:
  3. 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.
  4. 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.  
  5. 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. 
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?


  1. No one enjoys the first two years of an engineering degree....they survive them.

    Well, I could claim to be the exception to that...I did enjoy many parts of the Engineering curriculum. But I was not exactly a typical student, even at a Tech-school.

    I would argue that using Title IX to make college programs more friendly to both genders should be applied across the board, or not at all. Don't discuss the STEM programs; apply Title IX to all Colleges at a University. For example, why should the Education department be lopsidedly female?

    Next, we apply a similar rule to provide racial-balance to college sports, so that the basketball team isn't be dominated by dark-skinned minority students, while the hockey team isn't dominated by white-skinned students from Northern States.

    I mean, if we're going to force colleges to bend their admission rules to change the results, we shouldn't do things by half-measures. We should go all the way.

    And then apply the same rules to hiring of teachers in Elementary and Secondary Ed...

    1. Alright...I projected there. I did love physics and the programming, but I would have loved someone to spice up fluid mechanics a bit.

      The social engineer in me would love to see how this would work if applied to all degrees that went outside a 30/70 or 70/30 breakdown, actually. Then I'd like to see a ten review regarding the impact on practicing professionals.

  2. 5.STEM fields are something you have to know you want to enter immediately, or you've missed the boat.

    What is true: STEM programs are not something to drop in on- oh I might want to do this. No, you have to WANT to do it, because it demands more time than most fields and there are fewer "electives." You need tunnel vision to succeed in STEM programs.

    What is not true: that if you do not select STEM when you are 18, fuggedaboutit. I got my engineering degree 9 years after graduating from high school. My sister got her engineering degree 13! years after graduating from high school.

    In my second-and short- career as a math teacher, I took some Education courses. One memorable class was when an Ed prof was trying to argue that there was a bias channeling females away from STEM courses. Her testimony:
    My father was a physician. My brother is a Physician. And here I am, in Education!

    What are the odds that twit had SATs above 1100?

    My sister's best friend in high school went into Ed Psych. Her father was an MD. Yes, this proves that females are channeled away from STEM courses. Except for this fact: her mother was also an MD.

    1. That's a good distinction to make...I was thinking only of the "you lock in for four years" aspect. Of course people can choose this at any point. I know nearly 140 people transferred out of my major, and I can only recall 2 transferring in....but we did have several non-18 year olds show up at various points. They did much better too.

      As for your Ed professor...she either had low SAT scores or some serious Daddy issues she was crying out for help on.

      If you take my siblings, sibs in law, parents and spouse, you have 8 people, 4 male, 4 female. All 4 females have science/math heavy undergrad degrees (2 nursing, 1 math ed, one engineer). Only 1 of the men does (2 communications degrees, 1 philosophy, and 1 science ed). By your profs logic, this means men are discriminated against.

  3. You are correctly intuiting that the goal is not for more females to qualify for STEM degrees, but for more of them to receive them.

    Best of all would be a slight increase in granted degrees, because then the industry of whining about it could go on endlessly.

  4. Studying the effects on professionals in the field might be good.

    I've found that in my field (engineering departments among Automotive suppliers), the ratio is approximately 9 males to 1 female. The women are usually smart and capable; the ones who survived the Math-Science-Gauntlet in college.

    It has an effect on the workplace environment; I doubt that the effect can be described as entirely-bad or entirely-good.

    Interestingly, the HR office is much closer to 1:1 ratio. This reflects the pool of available hires in that field, relative to the pool of available hires in engineering.

  5. I am not an engineer and never have been. Nor have I played on on TV. In fact, I graduated with a degree in communication (A B.S. in comunication in fact. Doesn't that make sense?). Not even an English degree -- which might be considered to have some historical academic basis to ground it.

    As I have gotten older, my appreciation for those in the STEM fields has grown exponentially. I have moved from being grateful for engineers and accountant (for they do things I am ill suited for) to viewing them as heroes and wishing I could be one.

    The closest I came to such academic rigor was in the study of languages. When learning ancient greek, for instance, there is really no fudging it. When the Professor calls on you to read and translate, you either know it you don't. If you haven't done the work, no amount of BS can save you there.

    I received a BS because I did take some lower level science courses as part of my degree -- not the simplified ones for non-majors, but the intro courses for majors. There was a definite difference in the teaching approach. As you say -- very cut and dried. I loved it.

    It is in my mind that someday I may return for some kind of STEM degree. It will happen when I am wealthy and old and I will do it just for the challenge. I would certainly have to work hard to accomplish something at which I am not naturally adept. But I am more capable nowadays of seeing the puzzle pieces and I think more capable of learning to fill in my weaknesses. It would be fun to see if I could pull it off.

    Nice post. Thanks.

    1. The comparison to language education is a good one...I had been trying to think of other fields that were similarly black and white.

      As for getting a STEM it! They're fun!

  6. I agree that a lot of STEM promotion by politicians and political rhetoric surrounding STEM education is meaningless propaganda. I like science as much as the next science-y person (I have a B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Political Science), but why would they constantly harp on the need for scientists while cutting funding for scientific research?

    But if I must me honest, you sound obnoxiously full of yourself. A lot of social science/liberal arts majors actually have meaningful career goals, even if they are not STEM-oriented and they get to party more while achieving them (I honestly don't blame them). Many of them tend to be very socially conscious and just look for ways to give back to the community. I worked at a medical research lab for 3 years in college and would kind of die on the inside every time someone in my lab scoffed at social science majors being useless. Seriously, egotism doesn't contribute to any field.

    1. Yeah, my brother called me after I put this up and said the same thing. I'll cop to some self righteous bluster for sure.

      To be clear though, I don't take issue with anyone in social science or liberal arts who does their thing. Lots of wonderful stuff comes out of that (my MS is in psych after all). My specific issue here was those who do those majors and then attempt to pontificate and/or write policy for those in other majors with the "we know best" attitude. At the time I was writing this, I read quite a few articles by non-engineers talking about how they knew exactly what was wrong with engineering. That got me a little defensive (clearly), as I would never presume to strut in to a sociology class and tell them what was wrong with them.

      Hope that clarifies things!

  7. So I am a 'woman-in-STEM' (BSc in molecular genetics) who has advocated for women in STEM - is that a bad thing? I wasn't aware of the whole Title IX thing and am in agreement with a lot of your points in this article. However, I do like the idea of supporting female representation in scientific research - a realm where we still are underrepresented. It doesn't mean I think the men are purposely repressing the women, but in general society, sexism still exists and there are a lot of pressures discouraging women from pursuing lucrative fields in STEM.

    I do notice, though, that more women are incidentally choosing to study STEM, just because more women are entering higher education. Even in the engineering fields. Men still dominate mechanical and electrical engineering, but I see a lot of women studying civil and materials engineering sciences. So I agree that women's rights activists can relax on the women-in-STEM issue - we have the opportunity, we just have to take it.

    1. OK I just realized you quoted Penelope Trunk and lost all respect right there. While she may make a good point in that particular article, this is the same blogger that tells women to stay in abusive relationships and enter an MBA program for the sole purpose of meeting a rich husband. She generally discourages women from pursuing careers, so it makes sense she would defend those who don't do tech start-ups.