Title IX as a change strategy for women in science and engineering . . . and what comes next

What does Title IX have to do with women in science? Title IX is a mechanism that – when wielded – successfully affects change for women. Americans rightly attribute the Education Amendments of 1972, commonly called Title IX, with the spectacular increase in opportunities for female athletes in schools and colleges, but the law as originally written never mentioned athletics. It stated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be . . . denied the benefits of . . . any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

In analogy with the creative legal strategy that extended Title IX to school sports and led (with time and effort) to women comprising 42% of today’s collegiate athletes, I argued in 2000 that it was time to apply Title IX as a strategy on behalf of women faculty in chemistry departments. While that suggestion was met with near-universal horror, look at the facts. Twenty percent of the Ph.D.s in chemistry went to women in 1985, increasing to 33% by 1999. Yet the fraction of women on the tenure-track faculty of the top 50 research departments in chemistry in 2000 was only 10%, rising to 12% in 2002 and stagnating at that level in 2003 and 2004.

Chemistry is not the only discipline with solid Ph.D. numbers: women earn more than 40% of the Ph.D.s in the life sciences, more than 20% of the Ph.D.s in chemical engineering, more than 20% of the Ph.D.s in mathematics. Yet applications from women for advertised faculty positions in Ph.D.-granting STEM departments rarely match the numbers of women who graduate from these departments with Ph.D.s. The now-false and tired contention that “the statistics of small populations” is the operative reason for the slow advancement of women in science, especially to positions of power and impact, has too often been used to deflect action that would transform the academic culture to one that adapts to women. As Trower and Chait remind us, self-reform is not getting it done, and the slow pace is especially frustrating in light of the current (and historic) opportunity to change the faculty demographics as scientists and engineers hired in the boom years of the 1960s retire.

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