Breaking into the boys’ club

Decrying the lack of women in sciences, math and engineering fields, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden urged fellow senators to reexamine the issue of gender discrimination.

It’s common knowledge that women trail men in the so-called hard sciences at PSU and universities nationwide. Since Harvard president Lawrence Summers posited that women’s under-representation in science was due to inborn differences, the debate over women’s low turnout in the labs has become more strident.

At PSU, women earned fewer than one in five bachelor’s degrees from the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science last year. Other “hard” sciences – chemistry, physics and mathematics, for example – are nearly as disparate. In 2003-2004, women earned more bachelor’s degrees in all but a handful of categories, most notably computer science, engineering, chemistry and mathematics. Biology was the only hard science with more degrees earned by women than by men.

Increasingly, advocates for women have cited Title IX as a way to promote women’s access to hard science disciplines. The 1972 act forbids gender-based discrimination in federally funded institutions and is best known for requiring equal funding for men’s and women’s athletic programs. Its application to academics is all but unknown, according to Wyden.

“Now is the time to use every tool available to make sure America reaps the benefits of the best possible workforce of scientists and engineers, and I believe that the enforcement of Title IX in math and science is the right way to start,” Wyden said Wednesday. “Equal opportunity in math and science will benefit not just the women who enter the professions, but all Americans through our technological leadership and our national security.”

As assistant dean for enrollment and outreach in the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, Marcia Fischer is familiar with the gender disparity.

“You are not going to find as many women as in, say, psychology,” she said.

Title IX

Part of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX prohibits the exclusion of women or men from any program that receives federal funding. It reads:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to the discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Last year, the college gave 165 bachelor’s degrees to male students and 27 to female students. Women earned a higher percentage of the master’s degrees, with 56 compared to 158 given to male students.

“It is a huge topic [nationwide],” Fischer added. “Women are significantly underrepresented.”

Officials at Portland State say the university seeks to promote women in sciences without specific reference to Title IX.

Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Marvin Kaiser sees plenty of reason to be optimistic about the hard sciences under his purview. Last year, women earned more biology and general science degrees than men, but he says the college tries to motivate women to pursue science degrees.

“I’m not sure we’ve take a deliberate, active approach [to Title IX],” Kaiser said. “We try to make sure we do the kind of advising and recruitment that draws women, and give out scholarships to women in math and science. We want to encourage that.”

According to Fischer, lack of opportunity is less of an issue than drawing in women to hard sciences.

“Mega money in the National Science Foundation has been dedicated to trying to attract women to engineering for years,” Fischer said. “The situation has not improved.”

Kaiser added that PSU tries to target female students to the science disciplines before they reach college.

“We have taken a very active role to work with students in middle school and high school,” he said, citing programs like Saturday Academy and MESA that foster girls’ interest in science.

“We want to make sure we dispel those gender biases as much as possible.”