This week marks forty years since the passage of Title IX, an amendment that forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in public education or in any educational program or activity receiving federal funding. Also known as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, Title IX has a long history of being associated with women’s access to sports programs but the law has much wider, perhaps less visible, applications for gender equity in education.
At a congressional briefing on Wednesday, June 20, the National Coalition for Women & Girls in Education (NCWGE), of which IWPR is a proud member, presented their newly released report Title IX: Working to Ensure Gender Equity in Education with findings on how Title IX is impacting areas such as access to education for pregnant and parenting students, sexual harassment in schools and colleges, single-sex education, and education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and career and technical education. Congresswoman Gwen Moore addressed the significant milestone of the fortieth anniversary, but also cautioned that there is still much work to be done to achieve equality in educational programs. Even with successful women as role models some young girls still hold very limited ideas about what careers are right for them. “This ought to be a point at which we can break through,” said Moore of the fortieth anniversary.
According to the panelists at the briefing, the biggest hurdle to advancing equality in education is low awareness of what Title IX entails, such as lesser-known requirements aimed at improving access to education for pregnant or parenting students. Even though Title IX clearly makes this illegal, some schools still use pregnancy or motherhood as a reason for excluding girls from school.
A lack of awareness about Title IX requirements affects how sexual harassment and same-sex education programs are addressed in schools. Catherine Hill, Director of Research at AAUW, framed the sexual harassment problem as a need to make administrators understand that the law requires simply providing the same protections from harassment to students as to faculty and staff. “We want schools to not just react but to prevent sexual harassment,” said Hill.
Galen Sherwin of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke about the growing trend of sex-segregated educational initiatives. Limited research has been done in this area yet—because anecdotal evidence suggests they work—educators are implementing these programs in direct violation of Title IX requirements. These types of programs sometimes teach girls by using examples involving makeup and wedding dresses, while teaching boys with themes from sports and hunting. According to Sherwin, most often these programs are small-scale and go unnoticed by school district authorities. When an individual program is discovered, actions are taken but such a reactive response is unlikely stop such practices nationally.
Panelist Betty Shanahan, Executive Director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, emphasized the need to open up STEM fields to women and people of color and “leverage our nation’s strength—our diversity.” Shanahan said, since women who leave engineering programs tend to have higher GPAs than the men who choose to stay in these programs, “we don’t need to fix the women, we need to fix the environments.” A recent IWPR briefing paper, cited in the report, uncovered an alarming trend of a decline of women studying STEM fields at community colleges within the last decade.
The panel participants agreed that Title IX was crucially important legislation and, in the past forty years, women have made great strides in education. The biggest take away from the briefing was that most people are not even aware of what Title IX covers. Panelists emphasized the need to both encourage and insist on compliance in a carrot and stick approach. Suggestions for improving compliance with Title IX included requiring the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to conduct compliance reviews and encouraging school districts to conduct their own self-evaluations.
Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon is Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.