Sex, Lies, and Title IX, Perspective in Chemical and Engineering News

Serving The Chemical, Life Sciences, and Laboratory Worlds


May 15, 2006

Volume 84, Number 20

  1. 46-49


Sex, Lies, and Title IX

Federal law banning sex discrimination in schools may do as much for academics as it has for athletics

Richard N. Zare, Stanford University

In 1972, Congress enacted title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools. Specifically, Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Its application to sports in colleges and universities has resulted in notable gains in the support and participation of women athletes. Today, more than four times as many women participate in college athletics as when this law was first passed.

Stanford University Chemistry Department
Expertise Nadine Wong Shi Kam successfully defended her Ph.D. thesis about two weeks ago at Stanford University’s chemistry department.

Nowhere does the language of Title IX restrict its use to athletics. In 2000, this fact led Debra R. Rolison of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to urge the application of Title IX to academics as well as athletics (1). More than 30 years since Title IX’s enactment, the first tentative steps to do that are taking place. Two federal agencies, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, have performed together their first on-site compliance inspection. Could another tsunami be approaching the quiet shores of academia?

The application of Title IX to academics has come about thanks to the efforts of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who put language in the NSF Reauthorization Act mandating that NSF undertake such studies. This process also received a much needed kick-start from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which issued a report in July 2004 (2) recommending that Congress direct the agencies that fund scientific research to “take actions to ensure that compliance reviews of grantees are conducted as required by Title IX.” GAO further noted: “Our review of federal science agencies’ oversight for Title IX suggests that much of the leverage afforded by this law lies underutilized in the science arena, even as several billion dollars are spent each year on federal science grants.”

In February, I attended the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in St. Louis, where I participated in a symposium, “Assessing the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] Enterprise Through Title IX,” organized by Rolison. What follows are my thoughts on this topic, stimulated by this most provocative symposium.

First, I must issue a professional disclaimer. I paraphrase what Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) is reported to have said at a congressional breakfast: “Hi. I am Richard Zare, and I appear before you as a recovering racist and a recovering sexist.” We are all embedded in a culture that broadcasts signals about the innate superiority of men, and it is very easy to suffer a relapse. Although I have a wife who works full-time at Stanford University and three professional daughters who make me very proud, I still can catch myself downplaying the worth of women scientists, even though I know better.

SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics; Donna Nelson; Diversity in Science Association, Norman, Okla.
How Many? The percentage of graduate students and postdocs who are women has risen only slightly in all chemistry departments in the U.S., and the percentage of women in the faculties of the top 50 chemistry departments remains low.

Why is it that men are described as brilliant but women are described as talented and hard-working? Let a man be assertive and we admire his courage to speak out. Let a woman be assertive and we feel threatened by what she might next say. So, the first conclusion I reach is that attaining gender equity is a deep cultural problem, one that most scientists would like to see overcome, but one that is likely to persist unless active steps are taken to change the culture in which we live. This conclusion is hardly new, but it needs to be articulated in seeking a solution.

Let me dispel the myth that the problem is the pipeline. It is often stated that if we only had more women going into the sciences, the problem of gender equity would take care of itself. The facts deny this proposition quite unequivocally. Let’s take my field, chemistry, and look at the statistics. The number of female graduate students for many years has been between 35 and 40% of the total, the number of female postdoctoral researchers is slightly above 20%, and the number of women in all faculty positions at the top 50 universities (as measured by federal dollars received) approaches 13%. Moreover, the increase of women in the professoriat has proceeded at a glacial pace.

What accounts for this lack of progress in achieving gender equity? I suggest that three factors are at work: subtle but real discrimination, the failure to take into account the asymmetric burdens of childbirth and child care as well as elder care, and the failure to structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle. Let’s examine these factors in turn.

It might be thought that learned people of good will would certainly overcome discriminatory practices, but many studies show that these notions are deeply ingrained. I was surprised to learn that these cultural blinders affect both men and women (3).

Let me call your attention to a study by Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold (Nature 1997, 387, 341), who investigated whether the Swedish Medical Research Council (MRC), one of the main funding agencies for biomedical research in Sweden, evaluates women and men on an equal basis.

Wennerås and Wold measured the scientific productivity of each postdoctoral applicant in six different ways that were combined to produce one score. These factors included total number of papers, number of first-author papers, impact factor of journal in which paper was published, number of times paper was cited, and so forth. Then they plotted the competence score assigned by the MRC selection committee against this measure, called the impact factor.

It is apparent at once from their work that women applicants for postdoctoral positions were strongly disfavored over men with the same impact factor. Multiple regression analyses were performed to identify factors that determined the decision to accept an application. It was found that two factors had a significant influence on the competence scores: the sex of the applicant and the affiliation of the applicant with one of the committee members. Many regard Sweden to be a progressive country and the behavior of committees in 1997 to be not much different from what might be expected today. The conclusions that discrimination exists and is entrenched in our judgments seem hard to deny.

Many colleges and universities have started to recognize that women and not men bear children and that women are often the primary caregivers and homemakers. More needs to be done, but positive steps are being taken, at least in my department (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 8) and university (Chronicle Higher Educ. 2006, 52, 11), both of which recently announced childbirth accommodation policies.

The greatest challenge is changing the perception of what constitutes a successful academic career in STEM. Many have the impression that unless someone is pursuing academic activities with maniacal fanaticism, the person is not performing up to expectations. At one time, the same argument was used to support the claim that any male graduate student who got married was showing a lack of commitment to his academic career. It is my hope that we have overcome this hang-up and we will overcome others, but I suggest that such misconceptions are most effectively addressed by group discussion.

Currently, the reward structure of the academic rat race in science, engineering, and mathematics presents a real barrier to women choosing a career in academics. We must dispel the notion that working day and night equates to productivity. Many of us know coworkers with limited time available who nevertheless make outstanding contributions to the success of a research project.

To help promote this group discussion, I strongly favor the application of Title IX to the STEM enterprise. If Title IX is used as a tool to change the gender composition and ultimately the attitudes of the faculty, then the challenge is in the implementation. Because of the flexibility that Title IX provides, both good and bad solutions exist, and we must seek only what is best both for the scientific enterprise and for women.

It is possible to go about the application of Title IX in a confrontational manner, by challenging each unit of higher education to demonstrate compliance. Such an approach may be suboptimal and ultimately self-defeating. Consider that not a single fine was levied on schools whose sports programs were not in compliance with Title IX. Instead, by working with each institution, great progress was made. I suggest a similar approach in which sanctions are a last resort. Again, my recommendation is based on the belief that many are eager to see greater gender equity in the STEM enterprise.

We need initially to concentrate on the careful collection and wide circulation of what I will call Title IX measurables, quantitative measures that help us judge progress in achieving gender equity. I suggest that the following information be collected, department by department: the percentage of women undergraduates who are majoring in the department; the percentage of women who are graduate students and postdoctoral research associates; and the percentages of women who are lecturers/instructors, assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors. Because we are dealing with relatively small numbers in the last categories, large fluctuations should be expected, but this information will provide insights into where we are and have been.

Finally, I suggest that we annually ask each graduate student and postdoc, “Are you interested in pursuing an academic career?” and keep track of the responses.

I believe in this way we can better understand what is causing us collectively to fail to achieve gender equity in the professoriat. Shining a bright spotlight on such measurables each year will promote the discussion and thoughtful reappraisal of actions that I hope will lead to real progress. Let’s promote a competition among schools based on who does the most in various ways to promote gender equity. Title IX really is not just about sports.

Of course, many more Title IX measurables could be collected and might well be instructive. I urge, however, that the reporting process be kept simple and concise. Sometimes less is more because everyone can concentrate on just a few indicators.

As a National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” (4), emphasized, it is vital for both the security of the U.S. and the health of our global economy that this nation’s workforce comprises the best and brightest minds.

I look forward to the day when more women will experience the great joy I have had in exploring new frontiers in science with young emerging scientists both male and female, celebrating their successes, and turning their failures into something positive. The academic life is a grand profession, and it is not just for men. The smart application of Title IX can help demonstrate that.



  1. Rolison, Debra. “A ‘Title IX’ Challenge to Academic Chemistry-Isn’t a Millennium of Affirmative Action for White Men Sufficient?” Women in the Chemical Workforce,Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000, pp 74-93,
  2. GAO report 04-639: “Gender Issues: Women’s Participation in the Sciences Has Increased, but Agencies Need To Do More To Ensure Compliance with Title IX,”
  3. Valian, V. “Why So Slow?”Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.
  4. “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and EmployingAmericafor a Brighter Economic Future,” Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2006.

Richard N. Zare is the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science and chair of the department of chemistry at Stanford University. He can be reached by e-mail to

Chemical & Engineering News

ISSN 0009-2347

Copyright © 2006 American Chemical Society

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