The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dribbling and Derivatives

Can Girls Play Sports and Do Math? Is Title IX a Blessing or Curse for Lady Liberty’s Daughters?

What does dribbling a basketball have to do with calculating the first derivative of a mathematical function? Neither of them are things that girls naturally do well, according to some. What is more, author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers, writing in yesterday’s Washington Post, fears Title IX is about to ruin U.S. math excellence in the same way she believes it ruined high school and college athletics.

Sommers became alarmed by a letter President Obama wrote to women’s advocacy groups last October while still campaigning for office. In it, Obama declared Title IX had made “an enormous impact on women's opportunities and participation in sports.” If pursued with “necessary attention and enforcement,” Obama reasoned it could also make “similar, striking advances” for women in science and engineering.

Sommers’s main beef with Title IX is a common one for the law’s critics. Namely, that it results in reverse discrimination against male athletics. She cites a striking example of this at Howard University in Washington DC.

Howard cut its men’s wrestling and baseball programs to fund more women’s sports programs after coming under considerable pressure from the Women's Sports Foundation. This group was incensed because women constituted sixty-seven percent of Howard’s enrollment but made up only forty-three percent of its athletic programs.

The new offerings did little to boost female participation. Sommers seems inclined to agree with former Howard men’s wresting coach Wade Hughes, who huffed, “The impact of Title IX's proportionality standard has been disastrous because . . . far more males than females are seeking to take part in athletics.” Such sweeping condemnation necessitates a quick historical review.

Title IX, officially known as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, in honor of the Hawaii Congresswoman who was its principal author, became law in 1972. It 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.”

Although the original wording of the law never even mentioned athletics, it soon became the basis for numerous lawsuits charging sexual discrimination in high school and college sports. In 1979, the forerunner of the Department of Health and Human Services developed a three-prong test to determine compliance by any given school. The first test is the proportionality standard applied at Howard. However, co-equal tests include continually expanded opportunities for women as well as “Full and effective accommodation of the interest and ability of [women].”

Studies involving NCAA data show the passage of Title IX has increased high school female athletic participation by 900% and collegiate female athletic participation by anywhere from 450% to 950%.

Although more men continue to play sports than women do, a 2001 GAO analysis determined the ratio of male to female athletes at the collegiate level is 2.3:1.6, a far smaller gap than the law’s critics like to imply. The generally high regard for Title IX is reflected by no fewer than sixteen states having passed legislation enforcing similar protections for schools not receiving any federal funds.

Sommers and others are correct about a detrimental tendency toward male athletics but this is neither across the board nor due to Title IX alone. Rather it is the devastation of a perfect storm created when the irresistible force of civil rights advocacy meets the immovable object of big money sports.

Unwilling to make even modest cuts in revenue-generating programs, such as football and basketball, many schools choose instead to make draconian cuts in less popular men’s sports, such as wrestling, track and field, swimming, and tennis, to pay for new women’s programs. As a result, the average number of available sports programs has increased for women but fallen for men since Title IX’s advent. This is a choice by school administrators and not necessarily one in the best interest of either male or female students.

Nevertheless, Sommers fears that applying Title IX to achieve an unnatural forced gender parity in the fields of math and science will result in driving out all of the “best” (i.e. “male”) minds in these areas. Sommers views this as disastrous, given that “American scientific excellence” is “vital to the economy and national defense.” What is more, she insists that biology and considered preference, rather than sexist bias, explain why men and women gravitate to different academic fields.

It would all be sadly laughable . . . except a growing number of studies are confirming her hypotheses.

A new report, entitled A Measure of Equity – Women's Progress in Higher Education, issued this January by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, confirms the problem is real. It found that while female high school graduates earning college degrees increased across all racial and ethnic groups from 1985 to 2005, the National Science Foundation reported women earning degrees in math and hard sciences declined during the same period. An even more pronounced trend emerged for women pursuing post-baccalaureate education in these fields.

A study by Joshua Rosenbloom, an economist at the University of Kansas, published in the November 2007 issues of the Journal of Economic Psychology, as well as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, conducted by Vanderbilt researchers Camilla Persson Benbow and David Lubinski, searched for differences between math/science and other fields with greater sexual parity. Both studies looked at large samples over long periods.

Neither found significant differentiators in terms of family history, work/time pressures, education, or basic cognitive ability. The only significant difference established was that people choosing careers in math/science strongly preferred working with inorganic materials and manipulating machines – a preference also strongly correlated with men. In contrast, people working in gender-balanced fields preferred working with organic materials and dealing with other people – a preference strongly correlated with women.

The Vanderbilt study also found that women with gifted math abilities tended to have stronger verbal skills than their male counterparts did. As a result, their career choices expanded to include medicine and biological sciences, social sciences, humanities, law, and teaching.

Finally, author and psychologist Susan Pinker gathered data from the journal Science and a variety of sources that demonstrate, contrary to intuition, the most pronounced gender gaps in math and hard sciences exist in countries with the most freedoms and legal protections for women. In countries with fewer opportunities, like the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia, the number of women in science fields was as high as thirty to thirty-five percent, versus only five percent in democratic, industrialized nations such as Canada, Japan, and Germany.

Before conceding too much of the varsity playing field to Sommers and her team, it must be noted that the line between “social bias” and “personal preference” can be a nebulous one. The authors of all the above studies are quick to note that while a preference among men for math and science exists that is lacking in women, they have no clear notion as to how human beings form such preferences.

There is no compelling evidence that sexist bias and cultural pressures play any more or any less a role than basic biology. Furthermore, there is wide variation exhibited among individuals within both sexes and all academic disciplines.

Sommers is probably right and Obama probably wrong in disparaging Title IX as an ideal tool to help solve our nation’s current math/science gap. Forcing increased opportunities for female participation will do little when the current low participation seems as much a product of female preference as it does male sexism.

Indeed, yet another study conducted by Heather Mendick and Marie-Pierre Moreau from London Metropolitan University and Debbie Epstein from Cardiff University, sponsored by British Economic and Social Research Council, sought to discover why such a low proportion of math-precocious boys enter math/science fields. The results suggested the number one cause was a poor image of mathematicians and scientists. Focus groups characterized such professionals as work-obsessed and slovenly, lacking in basic social skills let alone sex appeal.

The researchers concluded legislation and enforcement mechanisms were poor solutions. Instead, “We need to use the mechanisms of mass culture to form a positive image of a mathematician.” In short, the answer is better communication and education – something schools seem well positioned to provide.

There is one important caveat, however. Just as the boundary between bias and preference is fuzzy, so is the one between opportunity and interest. Perhaps the forced creation of more female athletic programs at high schools colleges was the very thing that began changing attitudes of women about the acceptability of girls playing and excelling at sports.

Even if the above is true, such dangerous progressivism is too much for Sommers to stomach. She confesses her trepidation over the aggressiveness of advocacy groups like the American Association of University Women, who warn American educators, “We are breaking through barriers. We mean it; we've done it before; and we are ‘coming after them’ again . . . and again and again, if we have to! All of us, all the time.”

She would then likely be scared out of her wits by two authors whose op/ed piece appears on the same page of the Washington Post as her own. Quoting Malcom X, they vow to reform Washington DC schools “By any means necessary,” in the name of providing greater opportunity and choice immediately.

But more about that on Friday . . .

No comments: