Title IX — the limits of a bad joke

During the election campaign, Barack Obama stated, in a letter to women’s advocacy groups, that “Title IX has had enormous impact on women’s opportunities and participation in sports” and that if pursued with “necessary attention to enforcement” it could make “similar, striking advances for women in science and engineering.” This was a mindless statement, even by the usual standards of Obama pandering. Christina Hoff Sommers explains why here.

The comparison between female participation in college athletics and female participation in science and engineering programs is beyond specious. In college athletics there are two distinct sets of teams — men’s teams and the women’s teams. Men’s programs compete with women’s programs for resources (a competition that Title IX seeks to control), but men and women do not compete for slots on the same teams.

In graduate engineering programs (for example), the tracks are the same for both genders. Thus, men and woman are in direct competition for the same slots. If the government wants to control that competition, it must override decisions as to who the best qualified competitors are. The analogy in a sports context would be requiring men’s basketball teams to include a certain number of women.

The other key distinction between sports and science/engineering is that, in sports, participation is an important end in itself. This is inherent in the nature of sports, which have always been linked to recreation and fitness.

Moreover, neither a men’s wrestling program nor a women’s bowling program confers any good on society at large. Nor do the participants obtain money, or in most instances future employment, as a result of their participation. Participation is, in essence, their reward.

Given the primacy of participation, a prima facie case can be made for ensuring that participation rates do not favor one gender. For many, including me, that case is rebutted once you take into account the comparative desire of young men and young women to participate and excel in college athletics. But I don’t think it is irrational to make promoting equal participation by men and women a governmental objective.

Science is very different. Participation may be the primary end if we’re talking about a middle school science fair. But promoting high quality science and engineering, and providing the opportunity to earn a livelihood in their pursuit, are the primary ends of graduate schools in these fields.

In this context, it is irrational, and grossly unfair, to elevate the goal of promoting equal participation by men and women to the point that it comes into tension with the selection of the best qualified candidates for slots in science and engineering programs or jobs. The federal role, if any, should be confined to making sure that women are not being passed over due to bias when it comes to selecting the best qualified candidates (Sommers notes that the government already does this to some extent).

If the government goes further and, Title IX style, tips the scale in favor of selecting women in the name of promoting equal participation, it will undermine American scientific excellence. As Sommers points out, this “is an invaluable and irreplaceable resource.”

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