AAAS has a reputation for addressing provocative policy issues at their annual meetings, and this year is no exception. I spent yesterday afternoon in a thought-provoking symposium, “Assessing
the STEM Enterprise Through Title IX.”
I had always thought Title IX only applied to college athletics, but the language of the law is quite
general: “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.”
Debra Rolison, the symposium’s moderator and a chemist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory,
wrote a guest editorial in C&EN several years ago (March 13, 2000, page 5), in which she boldly asked: “Is it time to convince Congress to “Title IX” U.S. chemistry departments for their entrenched inability to increase the number of women represented on their faculties? In other words, should federal funds be withheld from those universities that do not increase their faculty hires to reflect the pool of U.S.-granted chemistry Ph.D.s—one-third of whom are women?”
Rolison’s challenge generated quite a bit of controversy, and in the six years since that editorial, her suggestion has gained traction within government. This symposium set out to provide a forum for discussing Title IX compliance for university faculty.
Although the symposium was intended for all disciplines, it paid particular attention to chemistry. AAAS’s Chemistry Section sponsored the forum, and two eminent chemists—Harvard’s George Whitesides and Stanford’s Richard Zare—were among the speakers. Other prominent chemists were in the audience and engaged in some spirited discussion.
It’s easy to see why chemists should be paying attention. The statistics in our discipline illustrate Rolison’s point perfectly. More than one-third of chemistry Ph.D.s go to women these days, yet women hold only 13% of tenure-track faculty positions in the top 50 chemistry departments. They are making gains at a glacial pace.
The numbers indicate that we’ve addressed the pipeline problem for the most part. Women are getting advanced degrees in chemistry. Even so, there’s still something entrenched in academia that’s keeping these qualified women out of the faculty club. Under Title IX, universities bear the burden of fixing this problem or risk losing federal dollars.
The panel and audience had some intriguing thoughts on why we weren’t seeing gains in the number of women faculty, despite the pipeline of talented female Ph.D. chemists. They also discussed ways to address the problem. I can’t say they reached any consensus beyond the recognition that there is, indeed, a problem. And it’s one that’s going to take some creative thinking to fix.—Bethany Halford, filed at 7:21 AM CST