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April 5, 2010

The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity

By John Rosenberg

Sometimes it seems as though the most heavily researched, richly funded area of American science today involves studies of why there aren't more women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and efforts to induce, recruit, and retain more of them.

In her article for Minding the Campus, Susan Pinker deftly punctures the omissions and evasions of the most recent such study, the AAUW's "Why So Few?", pointing out how that study's predictable bogeymen of "stereotyping" and "unconscious bias" denigrate the choices many women freely make.

There is nothing new about this attempt (dare one call it patronizing?) to deny and denigrate women's choices. A generation ago, for example, in its spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to hold Sears, Roebuck responsible for the "underrepresentation" of women in such jobs as installing home heating and cooling systems, (EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck and Co. 628 F. Supp. 1264 (1986), 839 F.2d 302 (1988)), the EEOC submitted testimony from an expert witness (Alice Kessler Harris, a prominent women's historian) that discrimination was the only possible explanation for such "underrepresentation" because "where opportunity has existed, women have never failed to take the job offered.... Failure to find women in so-called non-traditional jobs can thus only be interpreted as a consequence of employers' discrimination."

Kessler-Harris further testified that responsibilities for family and children placed no greater burden on women than men workers, and that women's own choices and interests have nothing to do with the jobs they take. In fact, she was so hostile to the idea that the system leaves women any room at all to choose that she insisted on placing the terms "choice" and "women's interests" in quotes, and even went so far as to deny that women themselves choose their own major subjects in college or that women business owners choose the types of businesses they own. Really, I'm not making this up. (I've discussed the Sears case in some detail here, which includes the disclaimer that I worked, "practicing history," for the law firm that represented Sears.)

And just a few days ago, to pick another example, feminists and friends were up in arms about a "controversial" report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that endorses surveying women's interest in sports in determining compliance with Title IX. The commission's report argues that "since female students are fully capable of expressing interest in athletics, or lack thereof, advocates for particular views on Title IX compliance should not devalue or dismiss their perspectives." Determining what women actually want is "controversial," however, because it might impede the preferentialists' desire to impose their version of "equity," i.e., proportional representation in sports, whether or not the desire and interests of the students is proportional.

The AAUP's "Why So Few?" is but the latest (unless there was one in the past day or so that I missed, which given the velocity of their appearance is entirely possible) of a slew of such reports and studies that are, for all practical purposes, exactly alike:

- In 2004 the AAAS issued a handbook on promoting STEM diversity. It noted perceptively that "if women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities were represented in the U.S. science, engineering, and technology workforce in parity with their percentages in the total workforce population, this shortage [of skilled American workers] could largely be ameliorated." Well, yes. If we had more women and minority skilled workers, we would indeed have more skilled workers.

- In 2006 the National Academies issued a report lamenting the "underrepresentation" of women and science and the "barriers" to entry they face, "a situation that deprives the United States of an important source of talent as the country faces increasingly stiff global competition in higher education, science and technology, and the marketplace."

- In 2009 a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing on the woeful "underrepresentation" of women in STEM fields ... except Biology. Why are there more women in Biology? Because, explained Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, there are more women in Biology. "In biological sciences," he explained, "one reason that the majority of degrees are now granted to women is because the number of female role models in that field far outnumbers the other STEM fields...." But wait. Doesn't that mean that men are now "underrepresented" in Biology due to a lack of "role models" and presumably an overly nurturing environment?

I could go on and on and on listing these handwringing reports, but I will content myself (and relieve readers) by mentioning only one more, a long report by MIT's Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity that appeared early this year. Like all the others, this report is full of huffing and puffing about the "underrepresentation" of women and minorities and the fundamental, foundational importance of "diversity" to the academic and especially scientific mission. What it lacks, as do all the others, is reasoned argument supported by evidence of how and why "diversity" is so crucial. If it is so "clear" that there are large untapped pools of talent, pools that exist primarily in --- may in fact be identical with --- the racial and ethnic groups "underrepresented" at MIT, you'd think the report would present some evidence of it.

Indeed, none of these reports and studies and testimonies provide persuasive evidence of just how and why increasing the numbers of women and minorities in science is so important. Here, to pick one of the few actual attempts, is MIT's effort:

Diversity is core to the excellence that MIT seeks for several reasons:

- It is intrinsic in the mission of excellence in science and engineering education that we engage a truly diverse faculty; we must diversify our faculty or we lose in competitive advantage and in mission.

- A part of MIT's mission is to be of service to humanity --- to hope to accomplish such a bold endeavor, one must also be inclusive of humanity

- A diverse faculty is key to communal scholarship and intellectual scope

- If we do not succeed in the diversification of faculty across the nation, we constrain ourselves and limit our success in all fields of endeavor.


In other words, "diversity" is "core" to MIT's excellence because it is "intrinsic," because "one must ... be inclusive," because it is "key," and because insufficient diversification limits success. In other words, well, just because.

MIT prides itself on seeking "the world's brightest minds," often justifying that effort, as do all similar reports, with a nod to the national interest in enlisting the best talent to aid us in international competition, etc. Fine, but where is the evidence that the enormous costs involved in trying to find, create, cajole, hire, promote, etc., more women and black and Hispanic scientists will produce more top flight scientists than would recruiting even more decidedly not "underrepresented" Asians and Jews? Why do we, as a nation, for our national interest, need more Latino scientists, as called for in this report from the University of Southern California's Center for Urban Education? If we need more scientists, we need them of whatever hue or sex. "Equity" demands fair and equal treatment, not proportional representation. "Underrepresentation" is not proof of "lack of access."

Fishermen usually try to fish where the fish are biting, but not those trolling for more scientists.

If I may be allowed to close on a personal note, I am not biased (unconsciously or otherwise) against women in science. On the contrary, I've been blessed with a scientifically gifted daughter who graduated from Bryn Mawr at 17 and received a PhD in Applied Physics from Caltech last December, shortly after her 23rd birthday. Almost a year ago I sent her a piece I'd posted on my blog, "Wanted: More WIS (Women In Science)", asking why it matters if there are "too many" women in biology and not enough in physics and criticizing those "falling ass over teakettle" trying to close the gender gap by making science more "welcoming" and accommodating "for different social or cultural experiences."

Jessie replied that she particularly liked what I had quoted from Barbara Bogue, co-founder of the Society for Women Engineers at Penn State, who "warned against 'negative role models' who give the impression that they are overly obsessed with their work and drive people away by making the field seem too demanding."

"Because of course," Jessie wrote, "we wouldn't want anyone giving an honest impression of the field...."

In a piece just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Diane Auer Jones gives a remarkably honest impression of competitive STEM research while blasting the "inherent bias" of the recent AAUP report that, she writes, "serves only to regurgitate age-old accusations and assumptions, and to make worn-out recommendations that we've heard so many times before---none of which have proven terribly effective in closing the gap in certain fields."

"Research careers are highly competitive," she continues.

No matter how long you've been at it, to be a successful researcher means competing against a growing group of applicants for a shrinking supply of grant and contract resources. As federal spending on interest and entitlement programs grow, the competition is only going to increase. Peer reviewers and contracting officials are compelled to give priority to those with the strongest track record and the highest likelihood of success, which generally means that the rewards are greatest for those who devote the most time and energy to their work.

This isn't gender bias. It is reality....

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John Rosenberg is a lapsed historian blogging at Discriminations.



Comments (1)

lara:

I am a female with an electrical engineering
degree. I did not not need any special programs or special teachers. I just went to class, took my tests, performed my labs and graduated. It was not all that difficult. I had one professor that wanted to constantly point out my gender. He was an ass. I ignored him. I only needed one class from him and it was not really torture. The only problem I had was that he made my eyes roll back in my head constantly. He should have been fired but I did not really have time to go after him. I had a job and college, no time to crusade against sexist dinosaurs. It mattered little to me. I graduated. I have a great job and I make about 200% of the average salary in this town. please do not make rules that imply women do not have the natural ability without giving preference. Take those that quualify and no more. You do no favors by giving a chance to someone that will not make it. There are enough women that can qualify thet we can take the cream of the crop.

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