Women in STEM College Programs Under Attack for Male Discrimination

August 23, 2019by Teresa Watanabe
Students walk through the Sather Arch in the early morning light on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley on Sept. 9, 2015. Female-only science programs, including at Berkeley, are under growing legal attack as sex discrimination against men. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Female-only science programs, launched by many universities to redress gender imbalance in such fields as computer science and engineering, are coming under growing legal attack as sex discrimination against men.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened more than two dozen investigations into universities across the nation — UCLA, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as Yale, Princeton and Rice — that offer female-only scholarships, awards, professional development workshops and even science and engineering camps for middle and high school girls. Sex discrimination in educational programs is banned under Title IX, a federal law that applies to all schools, both public and private, that receive federal funding.

A study released this week found that 84% of about 220 universities offer single-gender scholarships, many of them in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. That practice is permitted under Title IX only if the “overall effect” of scholarships is equitable. The study, by a Maryland-based nonprofit advocating gender equity on college campuses, showed the majority of campus awards lopsidedly benefited women.

In California, for instance, 11 colleges and universities reviewed offered 117 scholarships for women and four for men, according to the survey by Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. The group was originally founded to lobby for due process rights for those accused of campus sexual misconduct, who are overwhelmingly male — and launched the current project challenging single-gender programs in January.

“The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction,” said Everett Bartlett, the organization’s president who plans to file federal complaints against about 185 campuses if they don’t sufficiently respond to questions about the scholarship practices. “We’re not a society based on quotas, we’re a society based on fairness,” Bartlett said.

Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center argued that such female-focused programs are allowed under Title IX as permissible affirmative action to overcome conditions that resulted in “limited participation” of one gender in a particular educational program. She blasted the growing national wave of complaints alleging that men are being treated unfairly under Title IX — most prominently in sexual misconduct cases and now in STEM programs.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed sweeping changes to Title IX rules that would bolster the rights of the accused in sexual misconduct cases and is expected to issue final rules this fall. The department could not immediately respond to questions about the single-sex investigations.

“There’s a pretty well-organized and well-financed movement that is pushing out the false narrative that men are the victims of feminism,” said Martin, the center’s vice president for education and workplace justice. “The Trump administration has emboldened those trying to use this moment and this Department of Education as a weapon against women’s advancement.”

One public college female professor disagreed. She filed a Title IX complaint against UCLA challenging two workshops for women held by the campus Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics.

The January “Women in Mathematics and Public Policy” workshop focused on cybersecurity and climate change and specified on a flier that “only women will be invited to participate.” The “Collaborative Workshop for Women in Mathematical Biology” was held in June to focus on biological and medical questions. Its flier specifically welcomed female but not male graduate students, recent PhDs and other researchers. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights notified the professor in May and August that it was launching an investigation into both workshops, which were supported with federal funds.

The professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation, said she worked with UC professors to file the complaint to push back against what she described as an erosion of meritocracy and growing favoritism of women in the sciences. As a mentor to college students of all genders, she said, she sees more men becoming discouraged about their chances of success in the field.

In university hiring, a 2015 study by Cornell University found that hypothetical female applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships were favored, 2-to-1, over male counterparts.

“I obviously want women to be able to have opportunities to further their education and have employment in STEM, but I feel everything is being pushed for women,” she said. “For me, Title IX is about being completely fair.”

UCLA did not exclude men from participating in the two workshops despite the focus on women, campus spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said. Moreover, he added, the institute has held 59 workshops over the last three years and the “vast majority” of participants were men.

“The workshops, though funded in part by federal monies earmarked for the career advancement for women through research-focused networks, did not exclude men either actively or through de facto exclusion,” Vazquez said in a statement.

Other California campuses also denied allegations of sex discrimination. UC Berkeley, under federal review for running a “Girls in Engineering” summer camp for middle school students, said the program was open to all genders. Officials could not provide data on the gender breakdown of the 356 students who participated in the last three years except to say they were “overwhelmingly female.”

Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said the university launched the camp more than five years ago to draw more females into the field — only 29% of students enrolled in the engineering college are women. She said Berkeley would change its marketing materials to make clear the summer camp was open to all genders. But the camp will remain known as “Girls in Engineering” in order to specifically invite girls to attend, she said.

Since the late 1990s, women have earned about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees overall, but their achievements vary widely by field. In 2015, they received more than half of all undergraduate degrees in biological sciences, but only 18% in computer sciences and 20% in engineering, according to the National Science Foundation. Women made up more than half of the U.S. college-educated workforce but filled only 28% of science and engineering jobs, according to a report by the NSF in 2018.

Officials at UC Davis, which has been hit with a similar Title IX complaint, believe their STEM programs for middle and high school girls are permitted under 2006 federal rules that widened the door for single-sex K-12 education. Under that expansion, a school may run a single-sex program if it is substantially related to an “important objective” to improve educational achievements, said Sheila O’Rourke, senior campus counsel.

O’Rourke said UC Davis launched the programs in part because research shows that a critical time to spark girls’ interest in STEM fields is middle and high school years. UC Davis offers nearly 100 programs open to all K-12 students — its College of Education runs about 55 of them focused on STEM — and just a handful are geared toward girls, she said.

Mark Perry, a University of Michigan-Flint professor who filed the complaint against UC Davis and 52 other universities, said offering other programs to all students does not justify closing even one to one gender or another. Perry, a self-described libertarian, first tackled the issue in 2016 with a state civil rights complaint against a women-only lounge at Michigan State University and has since been on a “one-man mission” against what he calls “gender apartheid.”

Erin Buzuvis, a Title IX expert and law professor at Western New England University, said she questioned whether the recent surge in complaints about single-gender programs was motivated by a larger desire to attack Title IX. But she said it was appropriate to review sex-specific programs to see if they’ve become outdated as women have advanced in higher education. She added that attention should also be given to increasing men in such female-dominated fields as nursing and K-12 education.

“We need to be skeptical … of any segregation projects,” she said, “because the risk of treating people unequally on the basis of sex is promoting stereotypes.”


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