Title IX In Science & Engineering: Doing The Best With What We've Got

There's been quite a ruckus on the web since the New York Times published an article about applying U.S. Title IX laws (which forbid sexual discrimination in education) to the realms of science and engineering. The largest fear about this seems to be the potential institution of quotas. Let me just go ahead and put my head on the chopping block: I'm all for it. Not because I think it might solve the whole problem, because it won't. This isn't an easy argument to make, so be patient with me for just a moment.

You read that right - I don't think quotas will get the job done in the long run, but I think they should be instituted in the short term anyway. We all know that women are under-represented in these fields. As of late, all I seem to see are articles about how few of us there are in research, in upper management, etc. - few enough that we are still the exception.

A few women mentioned in the article disagreed with the idea of applying Title IX laws to their fields, for a number of reasons, and I can't say they're wrong. Will quotas actually solve the problem? No. Will talented, qualified white guys miss out on these opportunities because they're the wrong gender for the bottom line? Yup. Will there be instances where a woman may not be the most suitably qualified person for the job but she'll get it anyway? Unfortunately, yes. Will innovation in science and engineering fields suffer while people deal with the BS that goes along with quotas, politics, and backlash? Oh, you bet.

Then why implement them?

Sometimes, if you want the pendulum to swing back to center, you've got to push as far as you can past the mark. If we step out of the particular subject matter - science/engineering - and look at the Big Picture, we have to recognize that there's a problem, and *something* has to be done, even if it's not the ultimate solution that fixes everything.

We can't just say "oh, well, science and engineering are more important than sports, so you can't apply the same rules". What about every other societal disparity we've seen in the last fifty years? Desegregation didn't just happen - in some cases, forced integration was the only way to address the issue. Affirmative action, which certainly has its flaws, was the only way that women and minorities could even get their feet in the door, much less sit at the big table. It might be a different subject, but overall, it's the same issue. In fact, some of the arguments against Title IX laws included phrases like "women just aren't as interested in sports as men", so this isn't new.

I also realize that there's a strong argument to be made for attrition or for women not being as interested in these fields as they are in medicine, law, etc. That doesn't make it any easier for those of us who are left. (It gets tiresome being "other" all the time.) But personal choice is not the issue. And the other suggested fixes aren't working dramatically either - encouraging young women to go into the sciences doesn't really help in the short term.

Here's why a quota system is a good idea:

  • It means action "right now", not some indeterminate "later".
  • More women in these departments will decrease the "token factor".
  • More men will experience firsthand the quality of work we can contribute
  • Bottom line: it gets more women in better positions in these fields, *which is what we want.*

Look, in a perfect world, these mandates - affirmative action, integration, Title IX - wouldn't be necessary because people would be judged by their contributions, not their gender or race. But we can all agree that we don't live in a perfect world. Not just yet. So bring on a broken-before-it-starts quota system. If our frustration is so great that we'll try *anything* to upset the status quo, something broken is better than constantly debating the issue but in the end, doing nothing at all.

What do you think?


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