Special Report

Title IX: New Opportunities for Girls, But Gender Gap Remains

By Bryan Toporek — June 12, 2012 8 min read
Nadiya Holley, the quarterback for the Ballou High School flag-football team, eludes opponents during a game this spring. The District of Columbia schools, as well as those in New York City, offer the sport—the closest equivalent to football for girls.
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Forty years ago next week, 37 words permanently changed the landscape of sports.

On June 23, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in any federally financed education program or activity.

Title IX is far-reaching, but the law is most often associated with school and college athletics.

“We can safely say, of all the areas Title IX covers—and it’s key to remember it’s more than athletics—athletics is probably the place where we’ve seen the most visible strides,” said Lisa Maatz, the director of public policy and government relations for the Washington-based American Association of University Women.

Russlynn H. Ali, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, agrees and notes the irony that the word “athletics” does not appear in the text of the law.

Experts are unanimous that progress has been made toward the elimination of gender discrimination in high school athletics, based on participation figures alone, but they also say there’s still plenty left to do.

In 1971-72, the school year leading up to the passage of Title IX, 294,015 girls took part in high school sports, compared with nearly 3.7 million boys, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, or about 3.4 million more boys than girls.



“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”


In a 1979 policy interpretation, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights introduced the three-prong test to explain how it would enforce Title IX. As OCR clarified in 1996, schools only need to satisfy one of three prongs to remain in compliance with the law:

Proportionality: Schools must offer athletic participation opportunities to male and female athletes in proportion to their overall respective enrollments.

Opportunity: Schools must show a history and continuing practice of expanding athletic programs for the underrepresented sex.

Interests and Abilities: Schools must demonstrate that the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex have been fully and effectively accommodated.

SOURCES: Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972; U.S. Department of Education

Fast forward to 2010-11, which yields the most recent available data, and that gap shrinks by more than 2 million, with nearly 4.5 million boys and 3.2 million girls participating in high school sports.

Still, the number of female athletes in the 2010-11 school year does not even match the number of male athletes from 1971-72, as Bernice Sandler, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Women’s Research and Education Institute, is quick to point out.

Girls made up 49.7 percent of the overall high school student enrollment in 1970—ever so slightly more than they do now, according to the U.S. Census.

Ms. Sandler, who has been called the “godmother of Title IX” by The New York Times and played a critical role in its passage, acknowledged that she and other advocates at first did not realize athletics would even fall under its purview.

“We didn’t realize there was so much gender discrimination there,” Ms. Sandler said in a recent interview. “We figured it out in a few months, though.”

Now, having opened up athletic opportunities to millions more girls each year, Title IX has made sports go from “a freakishly rare part of girlhood to an absolutely typical part of girlhood,” said Deborah Brake, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh.

Interest and Opportunity

Title IX allows schools to prove their athletic compliance in one of three ways, known as the “three-prong test.” They can provide a proportional number of athletic activities for boys and girls based on their overall school populations, prove they are increasing athletic activities for girls on a continuous basis, or prove they are satisfying girls’ interest in athletics.

“Regarding the prong that talks about the interest and ability of women: At that point, the feeling was, women aren’t interested in athletics, so that would be just fine,” Ms. Sandler said.

As the high school participation figures suggest, things unfolded just a bit differently.

“That’s really been the big take-home lesson of Title IX,” said Ms. Maatz. “If you build opportunities for girls, their interest rises to match and exceed those opportunities every step of the way. Girls’ interest in sports is much broader than it was 40 years ago, and a big part of that was Title IX.”

John Johnson, the communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, believes that despite the 1.3 million-student gender gap in high school sports, many schools are maximizing opportunities for both genders.

“I think that’s really the end goal,” Johnson said. “It’s not necessarily a number, although if everything was fifty-fifty, that would be the proverbial perfect world.”

Mark Cousins, the athletic director for Texas’ University Interscholastic League, believes the gap will likely prove “difficult to bring down as long as football’s in the equation.”

In the 2010-11 school year, roughly 1.1 million high school boys took part in football, while only 1,395 girls did, according to the national federation.

In 2005, under President George W. Bush’s administration, the Education Department’s office for civil rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter saying that schools could survey girls’ interest in athletics via email. Schools were allowed to equate a lack of response to a lack of interest under the guidance.

The Obama administration repealed the guidance in 2010 and instead required schools to assess interest through multiple measures, not just an online survey.

See Also

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Title IX Turns 40: What’s Left to Do?

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As the United States battles a youth-obesity crisis, the physical benefits of sports speak for themselves, advocates say.

Diana Parente, the director of Title IX operations for the 1.1 million-student New York City school system, believes that sports teaches girls how to lead a healthy life even after they graduate from high school.

“With the obesity problem that’s currently facing the nation, it’s really important that kids aren’t just learning academics; they’re learning about a healthy lifestyle, too,” she said.

Along with the District of Columbia, the New York City schools started offering female flag football as a varsity sport this past school year. The league featured about 500 girls on 29 teams throughout the city, according to Jennifer Blum, the supervisor of the league.

“You can see how excited they get about it,” Ms. Blum said. “You can see they want to bring home the trophies and score the touchdowns and get the interceptions. ... Watching these girls do that, it gives them so much confidence.”

Legal Challenges

Research indicates other benefits from playing sports. A study published in the June 2007 issue of Youth and Society Journal found that female high school athletes were 41 percent more likely to graduate from college within six years compared with their peers who did not participate in sports.

Meanwhile, research from the New York City-based Women’s Sports Foundation suggests that girls involved in K-12 sports are less likely to use illegal drugs or become pregnant in their teenage years. And a 2002 survey from the Opperheimer Funds and MassMutual Financial found that more than 80 percent of high-level women business executives reported having played sports in their K-12 days.

“For women trying to break through glass ceilings, understanding the language of sports is a really great way to breakthrough,” said Ms. Maatz of the AAUW.

Throughout its 40-year history, Title IX hasn’t gone without challenges. The law arguably was dealt its biggest setback in 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Grove City College v. Bell limited the application of Title IX to educational programs or activities directly receiving federal assistance, effectively excluding most school sports programs.

Four years later, over a veto from President Ronald Reagan, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which reversed the Grove City decision by expanding the coverage of anti-discrimination laws to cover entire educational systems.

At this point, experts say, the courts have well defined the scope of Title IX, though lawsuits continue to emerge, particularly challenging the application of the three-prong test to high school athletics. Title IX critics often argue that the proportionality prong amounts to a “quota system,” resulting in schools’ being forced to cut what are deemed minor sports for men.

“The three-part test imposes an assumption of illegality if schools aren’t balanced,” said Joshua Thompson, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the American Sports Council in a recent, albeit unsuccessful, Title IX lawsuit against the Education Department. “Schools are afraid that if they’re not in balance, that will raise a presumption of illegality.”

“I think that athletic administrators have been blaming the law, but it’s really an administrative decision about how they’re going to be fair,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. “When institutions blame Title IX for their decisions, it’s unethical.”

Ms. Ali, the head of the OCR, agrees. “When we do some digging, it’s not that those sports are being cut because of Title IX,” she said. “They’re being cut because of the budget.”

Resources and Facilities

Besides addressing the gap between boys and girls in high school athletics, Title IX advocates say many recent cases have focused less on equal opportunity and more on equal and fair distribution of resources and facilities.

“Even now, where we can credibly say we’ve seen enormous strides in terms of girls in athletics, there’s still some smoke and mirrors being played,” said Ms. Maatz. “In efforts to mask that they’re not in compliance, schools do some fuzzy math with the numbers on their roster.”

For instance, some schools may double- or triple-count the same female student-athlete if she participates on multiple teams, to help balance out the proportionality prong. Other cases involve inequitable distribution of resources, such as a girls’ softball team playing on a field that’s subpar to the boys’ baseball field.

Ms. Brake of the University of Pittsburgh cites scheduling discrepancies as well.

“It’s a Title IX problem if the boys are always scheduled for prime time and weekend nights, and the girls only get weeknights,” said Ms. Brake. “You reinforce the reality of second-class status because the girls’ team won’t get as much fan support.”

Ms. Maatz and others have called for congressional action for high schools similar to the 1994 Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, which requires coed colleges and universities that receive federal funding to submit annual reports to the Education Department detailing the gender breakdown of their athletic programs.

Still, compared with 40 years ago, the K-12 athletics scene for girls has undergone a night-and-day transformation, according to advocates.

“We’ve made a lot of progress because it was so awful,” said Ms. Sandler. “We’ve gone from absolutely horrid to very bad, and that’s a lot of progress.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Title IX: With New Opportunities, Girls’ Interest Rises


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