June 23 marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX—the landmark civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. While the law applies to all aspects of federally funded education programs, it is best known for the role it has played in improving access to sports. And although women and girls still face serious obstacles to equality in the area of athletics, there is no question that there is much to celebrate. Thanks to Title IX, girls’ participation in high school sports has grown more than tenfold, and this year’s Olympic competition will feature female athletes at the highest levels.
Many will pause this month to recognize the dramatic increase in girls’ participation in sports, but Title IX’s application is much broader. Unfortunately, for too many young women, schools are unaware of the wide range of Title IX’s legal protections. For example, Title IX protects pregnant students from being pushed out of school, safeguards students from sexual harassment and bullying, and obligates schools to provide equal opportunities at all levels and in all areas of education, including fields in math and science that are dominated by one gender. But significant work is still required in each of these areas to reach the law’s full promise of equality.
Pregnant and parenting students. Prior to Title IX, pregnant and parenting students often were forced to drop out. Title IX makes clear that this practice is prohibited. These students must be allowed to go to school and participate in school programs for as long as they want. And when schools offer optional separate programs for pregnant and parenting students, the coursework and activities must be on par with the education the student would receive in the regular school program.
Title IX also requires schools to provide pregnant students with the same special services—such as at-home tutoring—offered to other students with temporary disabilities. Additionally, if a pregnant student’s physician deems an absence from school medically necessary, the school is required to excuse the absence and allow the student to make up any missed work.
Yet, teen parents continue to face enormous barriers to success in school, and unfortunately, many school policies hurt, rather than help, these vulnerable students’ chances at success. Schools across the country continue to bar pregnant and parenting students from activities and honors, kick them out of school, pressure them to attend alternative programs, and penalize them for pregnancy-related absences.
These practices not only violate Title IX, but also contribute to high dropout rates among these young women.
Sex-based harassment. Although courts have long recognized that Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination includes harassment, study after study has documented the prevalence of sex-based harassment and its harmful consequences in elementary, middle, and high schools and on college campuses. In a 2011 nationwide study, for example, 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 said they had experienced sexual harassment at school in the 2010-11 school year. In a 2005 survey of college students, 89 percent reported that sexual harassment occurred at their schools. And among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, the numbers are especially high.
Sex-based harassment takes a toll on young women—both in its emotional impact and in its impact on their education. Feeling unsafe at school has been correlated with declining academic performance, skipping school, and dropping out. And for girls and young women who drop out of school because of harassment, the long-term economic impact can be devastating. The prevalence of this problem at all levels of education highlights the need to deal with these issues early; K-12 schools must fulfill their obligations under Title IX to combat sex-based harassment.
Many will pause this month to recognize the dramatic increase in girls’ participation in sports, but Title IX’s application is much broader. But significant work is still required to reach the law’s full promise of equality."
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Although high school girls have made significant gains in STEM courses, women and girls continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. For example, while women make up a majority of all college and graduate students, in 2009 women received just 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics and only 16 percent of those in engineering and engineering technologies. In computer science, women’s representation has actually declined: In the late 1980s, women earned 32 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees; by 2009, women’s representation dropped to 18 percent.
To help grow the number of women in STEM fields, K-12 schools should work to keep girls in the STEM pipeline by ensuring that they see female role models (including teachers) in STEM fields, by providing them with opportunities for leadership and to build relationships with other female students in STEM, and by emphasizing the potential that careers in STEM have for providing service to others. Studies suggest that young women are more attracted to STEM when they are aware of ways those fields can be used to help people.
Although Title IX requires that women and girls be given equal opportunities to pursue STEM subjects, pervasive stereotypes that women can’t succeed in these areas discourage too many female students from doing so. Such messages take a toll on students: One study of standardized-test scores of 8th grade boys and girls in 34 countries indicated that higher levels of implicit gender-based science stereotypes are related to wider gaps in performance between girls and boys in math and science. And the economic consequences for young women discouraged from entering these disciplines can be steep: Studies have shown that many of the highest-paid bachelor’s degrees are in the STEM fields. What’s more, the wage gap (which stands at 23 cents when all full-time working men and women are compared) is much narrower in the STEM fields.
As these examples show, Title IX’s important work to remove discriminatory barriers is far from complete. Title IX can and should play a vital role in ensuring that our most vulnerable students meet their educational goals. It must continue to open doors for women to participate in every field of study. Doing so will lead to advancements for our daughters and, indeed, our entire nation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Title IX: The Work Continues