For all of the problems that his remarks revealed and engendered, Larry Summers deserves thanks for catapulting the issue of women's under-representation in math, science and technology to a level of nationwide attention it has never before received. We should capitalize on this attention – and on the commitments made by President Summers and other university leaders and policy makers – to take concrete steps to eliminate the artificial and discriminatory barriers that women continue to face in these fields.
Luckily, there are powerful legal tools at our disposal. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars sex discrimination in all aspects of federally funded education, including recruitment and mentoring of students, admissions to graduate school, and employment of faculty. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the bases of race, sex, national origin and religion by any employer that employs 15 or more employees. It applies to the full range of university employment decisions, including hiring, promotion, tenure and termination. Executive Order 11246 mandates that federal contractors – including universities -- undertake affirmative action to open opportunities for women and minorities.
These laws can be used to insist that universities and employers review their practices to evaluate whether there are gender-based barriers to women's advancement, in both the student body and the workforce. These types of reviews should include analysis, for example, of the availability of mentoring relationships for female students; the allocation of lab space and research assistance; the assignment of graduate students; the opportunity to edit prestigious professional journals; the receipt of funding for research projects, and the like. Anti-discrimination laws further mandate that university administrators and employers take the necessary steps to remove discriminatory barriers. These laws also call for our nation's science community to undertake proactive measures to recruit and retain women and people of color in math, science, and engineering, including targeted outreach and recruitment; mentoring programs; and adoption of policies that enable faculty, students and employees to combine work and family and other personal responsibilities.
Women and organizations that advocate for them can use these laws and other tools to press for change on campuses and in the workforce. And organizations like NCWIT provide a valuable vehicle for sharing stories of problems and successes, brainstorming strategies to open doors for women to succeed in math, science and technology, and seeking solutions to specific problems of discrimination.
The National Women's Law Center – which for three decades has used cutting edge legal strategies to advance the cause of gender equity in education and employment – is happy to provide advice and technical assistance to these efforts.
Marcia Greenberger is founder and co-President of the National Women's Law Center. The NWLC can be contacted at >firstname.lastname@example.org.