October 1 2012

Don't Regulate Individual Decisions

New York Times | Room for Debate

Carrie L. Lukas

 

Today, women earn 57 percent of bachelors' degrees, 63 percent of masters’ degrees and a majority of doctorates. Women dominate most humanities disciplines, and earn the majority of degrees in biology and psychology.

Why is government concerned only with achieving balance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the few subjects where women have yet to surpass men — while ignoring the overall imbalance within higher education as men fall farther behind?

There is little to suggest that colleges and universities are systematically discriminating against women or discouraging them from pursuing STEM disciplines. In fact, significant efforts — including governmental and nonprofit programs, and at school-level initiatives — are already underway to encourage female students to consider careers in STEM.

Factors other than sexism are likely the cause as to why fewer women pursue STEM fields. When students choose majors, they take into account myriad factors, such as their interests, aptitudes and career aspirations. Some research suggests, for example, that women with high-levels of quantitative skills are also likely to have high aptitudes in other areas, while men with high STEM-aptitudes tend to be less talented in other areas.

Government efforts to achieve an arbitrary gender balance in some majors would also have the potential to backfire by cajoling students into pursuing majors that aren’t actually their best fit. Government meddling represents a fundamental threat to academic freedom, encouraging universities to make decisions based on pleasing government regulators, rather than on the merits of students.

It would be far better to get government out of academics, and to encourage reforms that would improve our K-12 schools so that all students, male and female, might be prepared to succeed in their chosen disciplines, whatever those might be.

 

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