Women, science, and the election: the candidates weigh in

BlogHer Original Post

Quick: Do you feel Title IX has increased opportunities for women in academic science as much as it has led to greater equity between men's and women's athletics programs? If not, how can you ensure its more even application in academics?

This question and six others were posed to presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) (h/t Fairer Science). Each candidate answered all seven questions. If you're not yet sure which candidate has the better writers and thinkers on his team, you'll know by the time you're finished reading their responses (PDF).

In short: Obama and his advisers understand the challenges faced by women and other underrepresented groups in science. After poring over the candidates' platforms and watching the debates, I'm convinced Obama and Biden will not only advocate on behalf of women in science, but also will be vigilant about promoting women's interests in scientific research. I'm not so confident about women's interests in a McCain administration--particularly following the scare quotes he placed around women's health in the last debate. As Cecile Richards wrote last week,

I about fell out of my chair when I heard John McCain say this during the presidential debate last night:

"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He's health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'"

Since when did women's health become extreme?

What's really extreme here is that John McCain doesn't understand that women's health matters.

Here's a sample question from the AWIS/SWE Q&A with the candidates:

This fall, voters in Nebraska and Colorado will consider anti­affirmative action initiatives that could affect existing programs which, many feel, have helped establish more opportunities for women and minorities while improving the gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in educational institutions and in workplaces. What is your position on these anti­affirmative action initiatives?

Senator Barack Obama

We believe in a country in which opportunity is available to all Americans, regardless of their race, gender, or economic status. That's why we oppose these ballot initiatives, which would roll back opportunity for millions of Americans and cripple efforts to break down historic barriers to the progress of qualified women and minorities. We recognize the need to maximize the talent pool that the United States brings to the Science and Engineering enterprise. It would be unfortunate if anti­affirmative action initiatives distracted us from the pressing need to develop and exploit the talent of all of our citizens, including women, minorities, persons with disabilities, English language learners, and students from low income families. Yet even as we continue to defend affirmative action as a useful, if limited, tool to expand opportunity to underrepresented populations, we should consider spending a lot more of our political capital convincing America to make the investments needed to ensure that all children perform at grade level and graduate from high school—a goal that, if met, would do more than affirmative action to help those students who need it the most. And while Joe Biden and I support affirmative action, we also support efforts to increase opportunities for qualified men and women from low­ income backgrounds to attend colleges and universities – regardless of their race or gender.

Senator John McCain

I support the initiatives because t hey are limited to preventing preferences on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity in state programs. In my view, our efforts to create opportunity should focus on those who are disadvantaged, regardless of race, sex, or ethnicity. For example, in creating educational opportunity, we should concentrate on poorly performing schools that are not effective at educating students. By the same token, in recruiting a well­ qualified workforce, we should cast a wide net to ensure that the paths to advancement remain open to all people.

I don't understand McCain's response here. He talks about helping people who are "disadvantaged," which is clearly the position of women seeking professions in many of the sciences. And yet he doesn't want to advocate for people's interests based on gender, even though in science women are a disadvantaged group. Obama, on the other hand, demonstrates that he gets that affirmative action is one important tool in the toolbox America is using to build equity of opportunity in scientific practice.

After eight years in which science and women's rights as workers have been deprecated by the White House and its affiliates, I'm ready for a president who will embrace science and technology (beyond weapons technology) to move the health of all people, as well as of the planet, to the forefront of our concerns--and who can imagine a (big) place for women in that research and discussion.

You can learn more about the candidates' positions on science at Science Debate 2008, an organization that asked candidates 14 questions about science and science policy. In addition, Deborah Byrd provides a round-up of candidates' opinions on science issues. You can also read this post at Women in Science. Finally, Andrew McKinstry considers the place of the presidential scientific advisor in each potential administration.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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