Title IX Takes On Science

Federal agencies are taking stock of sexual discrimination in science and engineering departments.

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Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy have quietly launched several Title IX compliance reviews in university science and engineering programs since 2006, leading some to question the impact the anti-gender discrimination law could have on departments that have traditionally been dominated by men. The New York Times reports that under pressure from Congress, investigators have been taking lab inventories and interviewing science and engineering faculty members at schools such as Columbia, the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Maryland, all of which receive federal grants.

The investigation has stirred up criticism that a heavy-handed approach to Title IX could lead to much-feared quota systems. And although women have made significant gains in science and engineering (women are about half of medical students, 60 percent of biology majors, and 70 percent of psychology Ph.D.'s.), Title IX advocates still believe that the presence of obstacles like unconscious bias and a shortage of role models and mentors continue to plague women's progress.

In the meantime, the federal probes have not led to any new policies or requirements for gender balance, but administrators dealing with new mounds of paperwork and interviews have called the reviews, among other things, a "complete waste of time."