Starting this summer, the U.S. Education Department plans to conduct in-depth investigations of whether selected colleges and universities are complying with federal anti-bias laws in their treatment of women in math and science.
The inquiries will cover how women are treated as students (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) and as faculty members (including questions about hiring, promotion and tenure). The investigations will be conducted by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights as full "compliance reviews," which look broadly at institutional policies and practices -- and tend to be much more thorough and sometimes last much longer than investigations of a specific complaint.
Stephanie Monroe, assistant education secretary for civil rights, said in an interview Monday that "about a half dozen" institutions would receive compliance reviews and that they could last from a few months to years in which actions would be monitored. The reviews -- first reported Monday by National Journal -- will be conducted under the department's authority to enforce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,  which bars sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds. Compliance reviews frequently end with agreements in which institutions agree to change certain policies, and with policy guidance that is broadened to apply to colleges that were not reviewed.
The planned investigations on how women are treated in science would mark a huge expansion of federal enforcement activities on behalf of women in science. A Government Accountability Office report  in 2004, which criticized enforcement as inadequate, found that in the previous 11 years, the Education Department had conducted a total of three compliance reviews with regard to how colleges and universities handled science and gender equity.
Monroe said that a final list of institutions for reviews had not be selected, and that they would come from places where the department had heard reports of possible problems in the treatment of women.
While the reviews will examine any policies that exclude women from programs or jobs, Monroe stressed that the discrimination women face as students or faculty members in math and science may be "subtle" and may not involve written rules but "barriers" that are still quite real. She said that the department would examine policies that result in women "feeling unwelcome in pursuing advanced degrees or tenured positions." Such policies might include patterns of "glass ceiling" assumptions in which women aren't considered for certain kinds of positions, or where women with children are automatically placed on a "Mommy track."
In cases where there are policies that hinder the advancement of women, Monroe said that colleges and universities would have a chance to defend those policies and that they would not be considered automatically to be illegal. Gender gaps in enrollment, employment or tenure rates could lead to close scrutiny, but not necessarily to a finding of discrimination, she said.
"It's important to not simply look at the numbers, but what the intent of the policy is and how the policy is carried out," she said.
Monroe also said that "our job as a law enforcement agency is not to push or influence decision making in terms of women and men making choices, but to make sure that women and men have the same opportunities."
Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, said that she was pleased to learn of the planned compliance reviews because Title IX enforcement in math and science "has not been a priority" for the department.
Samuels agreed with Monroe that much of the bias in this area is not of the "no women allowed" variety, but more subtle. "Discrimination is much broader than explicitly saying 'we don't want you here because you are a woman.' There can be all kinds of forms of discrimination," she said.
She suggested that the department should look, for example, at hiring practices in which departments may rely on informal networking rather than casting a wide net in assembling a candidate pool. Reliance on such informal networking tends to produce pools "of people who are like you are," she said. Similarly, she said that the department should examine whether expectations for tenure -- number of publications, where they appear, type of research grants expected, etc. -- favor men over women.
Samuels said that "the devil will be in the details," asking: "Are they going to ask the hard questions? What kinds of remedial measures will they require if they find that barriers exist?"
Barry Toiv, director of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Universities, said that these institutions are making "very serious efforts" to attract more women to math and science, at the student and faculty levels. The members of the AAU are the top research universities in the United States, some of which have become known for their progress in diversifying the science student body and faculty -- and others of which have not.
"It's clear that there's still an imbalance," Toiv said. And universities need to develop the best approaches to dealing with that imbalance in the context of their missions, he said.
The Education Department has not consulted with the AAU about its planned inquiry. Toiv said that the association could not comment on the legal issues that the reviews may raise.