Over the past decade the National Science Foundation has funneled $135 million into a "gender bias program" called Advance. Its stated purpose: to advance women in science. In practice it does little to help women, but its potential to inflict lasting damage on fields that drive the American economy--engineering, physics and computer technology--is enormous.
Virginia Valian, a feminist psychologist at Hunter College, is credited with providing Advance with its "conceptual tools." With the help of a $3.9 million NSF grant, she and her colleagues developed the Gender Equity Project, which sponsors workshops aimed at transforming American laboratory culture. According to Valian, the compulsive work habits, single-minded dedication and "intense desire for achievement" that typify elite scientists not only marginalize women but also compromise good science. She says, "If we continue to emphasize and reward always being on the job, we will never find out whether leading a balanced life leads to equally good or better scientific work." A world where women (and resocialized men) earn Nobel Prizes on flextime has no basis in reality. But the Advance program is not about reality.
For many years, NSF has sponsored admirable programs that truly help and encourage women scientists. But a 1999 MIT report alleging pervasive sexism persuaded NSF officials that encouragement was not enough: The culture of American science had to change. Scholars in the National Council for Research on Women were ready with an avalanche of advocacy research describing the "hostile environment" women face in the laboratory. One ncrw author lashed out at the "manliness of the scientific enterprise" with its obsessive single-mindedness, competitiveness and antagonism to family life. By 2006 former Clinton Administration official Donna Shalala would testify at a congressional hearing that gender bias in the laboratory was a national "crisis" requiring dramatic federal action. "Our nation's future depends on it."
Advance marches on. Now any engineering, physics, math or computer-technology program that moves too slowly toward gender parity is inviting a government investigation and loss of funding. The nation's leading programs are under pressure to adopt gender quotas and to rein in their competitive, hard-driven, meritocratic culture--a culture that has made American science the mightiest in the world.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.