Although we are now in the 21st century, gender inequality still exists in universities, in a subtler manner. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics states, “Women now represent more of the U.S. undergraduate population than men.” This means that women have become the majority group in undergraduate programs across the United States. However, how equally proportioned are females in higher education?
By 2001, women in the undergraduate population increased to 56 percent, in contrast with those representing 42 percent of undergraduates in 1970. That’s a 12 percent increase. A recent report also estimated that by 2013, women will increase to 57 percent of the undergraduate population at colleges throughout the United States.
An increase in traditional female students contributes to this rise. Historically, women have been represented among nontraditional students (a group including single parents, older students and low-income students). Now a greater number of women are entering a four-year college right after high school. UCLA Education Professor Linda Sax stated that there is an increasing rate of high-school girls entering college.
“One of the things that we’ve seen is a greater likelihood of young girls to make the decision to go to college, and to see education as a means of furthering their academic goals,” Sax said.
The University of California’s admissions and enrollment data reflects this nationwide trend of more women in higher education. According to UC admissions’ data, the number of women admitted rose from 30,224 in 1999 to 35,858 in 2004. There are numerous influential women and coalitions, such as Jean-Marie Navetta, the spokeswoman for American Association of University Women, who stress Title IX in the higher educational system. Title IX is legislation passed in 1972 that prohibits gender discrimination in federally financed education programs.
At present, women earn 57 percent of bachelors’ degrees and 59 percent of masters’ degrees. Notably, 2006 marked the fifth consecutive year in which the majority of Ph.D’s were awarded to women in the United States. There is a higher percentage of degrees earned by women in the areas of humanities, social sciences, education and life sciences than by men. In addition, women now occupy high positions in prestigious universities such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton.
Despite the high rates, there are several academic areas where women are still the minority. For example, women professors only comprise 19 percent in mathematics, 11 percent in physics and 10 percent in electrical engineering. And while women earn 24 percent of Ph.D’s in the physical sciences, they are still far from closing the gender gaps in such fields.
The question is why are there fewer women in the fields of math and physical sciences? Sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University recently conducted a survey discussing the attitudes of several faculty members on social issues. A total of 1,417 professors gave accounts for the scarcity of women in the areas of math, science and engineering. One percent attributed the scarcity of females to ability, 24 percent to sexism and 74 percent to the differences in interest between men and women.
The differences in interest between the two genders have been meticulously studied. For example, Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts on autism, believes that men on average are programmed to systematize better and women to empathize. Men are more technologically innovative, while women are more family-oriented. Women remain dominating in empathy-centered fields, such as education and psychology, while men remain dominant in “systemizing” areas like engineering. Although, Baron-Cohen’s claims are somewhat controversial, his claims shed light on the unequal proportions of females in science and mathematics.
There have been several solutions offered to solve these gender disparities in the mathematics and science departments. One of the leading solutions is to apply Title IX to these departments. Although it has increased women’s participation in athletics, it has caused several conflicts. Mainly, Title IX led to the adoption of the infamous quota system. Many universities interpreted Title IX to mean that there should be a “statistical proportionality” within the genders in sports. For example, if the student body at a college is 40 percent female, then 40 percent of athletes at the school should also be female.
However, many athletic directors are unable to attract the same rate of women as men in sports. And to avoid any claims of unfair gender practices or loss of funding, many universities simply eliminate men’s teams so there are equal proportions between men and female. However, Title IX has lead to the decrease of men’s participation. Therefore, Title IX not only masks but also helps to hinder the gender inequalities within the institution of education.
What is necessary is the transformation of American culture in areas like science and mathematics. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is directing a multimillion-dollar program called ADVANCE, which aims to transform the culture of American science to make it fair for both genders. NSF will attempt to make the various departments more interdisciplinary, democratic and less stressful. To create a more gender-fair society, Virginia Valian, a psychologist at Hunter College, urges attacks on “gender schemas.”
We need to alter the way we see the roles and customs of each gender. Therefore, we will soon carve the way for less gender discrimination in the basic framework of society.