The impact of Title IX beyond women and sports



Many of us associate Title IX with equal access for women to sports. But the law, which was signed by President Nixon forty years ago this past Saturday, went much farther than that, prohibiting sex discrimination for all educational programs or activities that receive federal funding.

Title IX has had a significant impact on the ability of girls and women to participate in science. People from President Obama to NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco are celebrating how far we have come, while others are pointing out what’s left to be accomplished and working hard to level the playing field.

In an op-ed in the Denver Post and a Facebook post, Dr. Lubchenco reflects on the impact that Title IX had on her athletic and scientific careers. I would suggest reading both, as they are quite different. In the newspaper, she describes how girls were required to play a bizarre form of half-court basketball, as the “strenuous” nature of a full-court game would supposedly harm girls’ health.

The basketball story rings true to one of my UCS colleagues. Her college rowing coach (an Olympic gold medalist, pictured here with the other winners) would tell her rowers that the women’s course used to be shorter than the men’s course because of similar concerns of “fragility.” Ironically, shortening the race turned it into a sprint, causing most of the muscles to work under a high percentage of anaerobic conditions. Far unhealthier in the long run. Today, the women’s race is now the same length as the men’s race.

But this is about far more than sports. Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Lubchenco’s Facebook post:

    “When I was a girl, I competed in many sports—volleyball, basketball, swimming and diving—but only because my parents created opportunities for my sisters and me. They knew how valuable both team and individual sports could be to our self image and self knowledge, attitudes, health, ability to lead and follow. Our school mates were not so lucky. The only athletic activity available to girls in my elementary school was baton twirling…

    “Why was it so important to me to keep active in sports throughout my academic pursuits? Playing sports was not only fun. You learn how to pick yourself up after you fall and stay in the game; you learn you’ll get better and gain confidence in your abilities by practicing hard; and you learn how to work as part of a team.

    “These are essential life skills that can be applied to careers in science, math, engineering or any other discipline where today’s young women are excelling beyond expectations and pushing the frontiers of discovery, exploration and innovation. I would venture a guess that many of them were as successful out on the nation’s grade school, middle/high school and college sports fields, tracks and courts (and in the pools, too!) as they are in their workplace laboratories, offices and board rooms. Sports are not a panacea, but they should be a choice. Thanks to Title IX, they are.”

Title IX has not been a panacea, either. Women are still underrepresented in scientific fields. Furthermore, African American and Hispanic girls receive less exposure, encouragement, and support to succeed in science, engineering, technology, and math than their white counterparts.

To help address these disparities, Massachusetts-based Spare the Rock Records will soon release Science Fair, which features eighteen songs sung by women and girls about the benefits of science and engineering education for girls. Proceeds from the album will benefit the science and engineering programming at Girls, Inc. (hat tip to my UCS colleague Sean Meyer). You can pre-order it here.

I remember being shocked when I learned that newspapers had separate classified sections for “men’s work” and “women’s work” as late as the 1960s. And I’m glad those days are behind us. To be sure, we have a long way to go when it comes to true sex and gender equality in science. But it’s great to see people like Dr. Lubchenko and the creative folks in Massachusetts working hard to get us there.