Physics Appreciates ‘Thoughtful’ Title IX Review

In an opinion piece published several weeks ago, Gary Shu speculated on the causes of the gender gap in science and engineering and decried the call for a “Title Nining” of federal science funding.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The law authorizes and directs federal agencies to determine whether universities provide equal educational opportunity regardless of gender.

Compliance with Title IX is a necessary but insufficient condition for creating an environment that encourages and supports all talented individuals wishing to pursue a career in science or engineering.

Last year the MIT Physics Department was reviewed for compliance with Title IX by the NASA Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. Statistical data were collected along with relevant policies and procedures, and an on-site visit was made to interview physics students and faculty as well as Institute administrators.

The Title IX report concludes: “Based on an evaluation of the data provided by MIT and from on-site interviews and observations, NASA found the MIT Physics Department to be in compliance with the NASA Title IX regulations. NASA notes with approval the extent and variety of promising practices MIT is undertaking in its efforts to increase the participation of women in its Physics Department and to ensure equal educational opportunity regardless of gender.

In particular NASA notes that MIT has very high numbers of women in its undergraduate physics program relative to other universities’ physics programs. Instead of using Title IX as a bureaucratic tool to enforce quotas, NASA performed a thoughtful review and provided useful recommendations to help us meet our goals of reducing the gender gap in physics.

While gender variation in abilities and opportunities or the balance of careers and family are often considered to be major causes of the disproportionate underrepresentation of women in Physics, several universities, including MIT, are implementing serious measures to mitigate the obstacles facing women who pursue a career in science.

The steps we have taken include affirmative action reviews of faculty and graduate student recruitment, paid maternity leave for graduate students and faculty, access to quality childcare, and automatic one-year delays in the faculty tenure clock for childbirth. Equally important are mentoring and support from faculty supervisors, department leaders, and fellow students.

A career in physics is demanding, exciting and satisfying — regardless of one’s gender, race or sexual orientation.

Edmund Bertschinger is the head of the Department of Physics.