Gender Gap in the Sciences Spurs New Research and Advocacy Campaign
"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied
the benefit of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal
That's the text of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments. Intended to open to women the doors of fields
dominated by men, Title IX has fueled significant advances in many fields, including sports, medicine, and
law. In the scientific and engineering arenas, however, women have made far less progress.
Concerns about this gap have generated a flurry of research as well as a national campaign, calling for
accountability and the elimination of gender discrimination in the sciences at colleges and universities.
The campaign, "Women in the Sciences: Left Out, Left Behind," was launched November 18 by the National Women's
Law Center and Women's Prerogative. It calls attention to the ways that the under representation of women on
science faculties impacts female students, professors, universities, and science as a whole; the campaign
includes a nationwide public education and letter-writing campaign demanding that universities break down
barriers to women in the sciences and that government officials enforce Title IX.
Research Spurs Action
The main impetus for the campaign is "A National Analysis of Diversity in Science and Engineering Faculties
at Research Universities," a study by University of Oklahoma researchers Donna J. Nelson, associate professor
of chemistry, and Diana C. Rogers that shows a vast under-representation of women in the faculties of top
research universities. (MentorNet News covered the report in the April issue.)
The campaign was also inspired by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in July that
examines Title IX compliance at the departments of Energy and Education, the National Science Foundation,
and NASA as well as women's participation in science, engineering, and math at universities and federally
The GAO investigation, prompted by Democratic senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Barbara Boxer of California,
confirmed what researchers and organizations such as MentorNet have long known: While women's participation
in the sciences has increased substantially over the past three decades, women still lag considerably behind
their male counterparts.
Significantly, the GAO notes that studies indicate that gender discrimination "may still affect women's
choices and professional progress" in science, engineering, and math. The federal agency overseer also found
that the Department of Energy, the NSF, and NASA have never conducted the legally required Title IX compliance
reviews of grantee institutions.
"It's a very strongly worded report," says Jong - on Hahm, a neuroscientist and director of the Committee
on Women in Science and Engineering at the National Academies. "None of the findings surprised me [but]
I was surprised by the frank and candid reporting. I was quite impressed."
Hahm is leading a study - also prompted by Wyden - for the National Academy of Sciences that looks at gender
differences in numbers, promotions, progression, and salaries in science, engineering, and math faculties;
results are due next summer. In addition, the Rand Corp. is conducting a study of gender breakdowns in
recipients of federal research and development awards.
What Is Compliance?
The GAO report called on the NSF, NASA, and the Department of Energy to perform the required compliance
reviews of grantees. The problem, says Hahm, is that "there's not a clear understanding of what the agencies
will do. The issue with the sciences, engineering, and mathematics is that no one has explored what
compliance would be. How would you determine a university was compliant in Title IX in academic departments?
All the case law so far is around athletics."
She says institutions could demonstrate compliance with gender parity in enrollment, a documented history
of trying to remedy the situation, or evidence that people currently enrolled or employed are satisfied with
the status quo.
"The only thing I think is possible," says Hahm, "is to show there's a history of trying to improve the
situation - and that's a very mushy standard. It's going to be a very interesting discussion for the next
few years, if we can keep this on the front burner."
Realizing the Promise of Title IX
Ultimately, the hope is that Title IX will do for the sciences and engineering what it did for sports
and other fields. Wyden has said that enforcing Title IX could boost women's participation in the sciences,
math, and engineering by as much as 50 percent.
"It really is in the universities' best interest to keep thinking about this," says Hahm.
"People don't realize that in the beginning, Title IX opened up all these disciplines to women," she adds.
"It's why half the enrollees in medical school are women; and in law schools as well. In a way, this is going
back to the roots [of Title IX]."
To learn more about the "Women in the Sciences: Left Out, Left Behind" campaign and how you can get involved
in helping women make progress in science and engineering, go to http://www.womensprerogative.org/womeninsciences/.
You can download the complete GAO report at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04639.pdf. It includes excellent
comparative data on women in science, engineering, and mathematics.
For more on the Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, go to http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cwse/.
The page links to a summary of the Committee's current study, along with a compilation of gender studies at
major U.S. research institutions.