Sex, Sports, and Title IX on Campus: The Triumphs and Travails

As the landmark legislation celebrates its 40th birthday, a pair of Wellesley College officials outline the triumphs, travails, and challenges to come on campus.

06.22.12 8:45 AM ET

Forty years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that forbids sex-based discrimination in education, colleges across the country have seen a sea change in campus demographics—more women on the sports field, more women in laboratories, more women graduating from college than men. There is no question that Title IX has enabled women to achieve extraordinary progress in domains previously restricted to men. However, its work is not done.

The statistics sound impressive: more than six times as many women compete in college sports than in 1972, while the number of women getting Ph.Ds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has increased nearly four-fold since 2006. But these numbers tell just part of the story. We must not confuse progress in educational opportunity with parity. Despite improved educational attainment for women, progress has been uneven, and in some cases, has declined in recent years. Men currently occupy 80 to 95 percent of the top decision-making positions in American politics, business, the military, religion, media, and entertainment.

Our most pressing contemporary challenges include overcoming the gender barriers in STEM fields, addressing the lack of women in senior leadership positions in business, media and government, and developing and implementing effective sexual-harassment policies on college campuses.

Although the language of Title IX addresses sex-based discrimination in education on a very broad level, the most widely lauded changes have occurred in the area of athletics. To a certain extent, academic gains have not occurred on par with athletic gains. Yet even within collegiate sports, women still have fewer participation and athletic scholarship opportunities than men, and far fewer immigrant, minority, and women from low-income families play sports than middle-class Caucasian women. Access to competitive women’s sports is not yet equal.

In the classroom, while female students demonstrate greater success than their male counterparts by certain measures, boasting higher GPAs and graduation rates, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. The academic achievement gap has narrowed in many important ways, but the STEM gender gap remains a particularly recalcitrant problem. In a global economy driven by technology and innovation, men still hold the most prestigious, highest-paying jobs by a large margin. The jarring lack of women in scientific, technical, or other nontraditional professions—defined as an occupation in which less than 25 percent of the workforce are women—was not fully addressed until 2000, 30 years after the passage of Title IX, when the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy performed their first on-site compliance inspections.

In academia, Title IX compliance with regard to STEM education has likewise been slow to take hold—women are 25 percent less likely to attain full professorship than men, and make up only 19 percent of full professors in these fields as of 2006. Marked differences in advancement across diverse fields also prevail. Although female representation in the social and life sciences has climbed steadily since Title IX passed, progress in mathematics, physics, and engineering has remained stagnant over the last decade, and has even declined in computer science in recent years.

The slow progress in STEM fields has been attributed to a number of factors, including pervasive cultural biases and gender stereotypes, and hiring, promotion, and tenure-track practices that penalize pregnant women and female caregivers. There are deeply entrenched cultural beliefs about gender differences in intelligence, ability, and interests. These beliefs impact female identity and academic performance at every stage of one’s education, from preschool to postgraduate work. Biology, for instance, is seen as a largely gender-neutral subject requiring no special “innate” talents in math and science, whereas computer science and engineering are considered “male” fields. Such assumptions are both the result of and result in unequal representation in critical fields and leadership positions, creating a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop. Women, even when they have attained high levels of success, may present their achievements in social situations very differently from men potentially to their own detriment. Princeton’s 2011 report on undergraduate women’s leadership found that “women consistently undersell themselves, and sometimes make self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their own accomplishments.”

A long-held perception is that a successful STEM career requires, above all, long hours and single-minded focus, often at the expense of family life. This perception is slowly starting to change. In 2011, Michelle Obama announced a new National Science Foundation Career-Life Balance Initiative that will provide greater work-related flexibility for women and men who receive NSF grants. Among its provisions, the initiative allows the postponement or suspension of funds for up to one year for childbirth, adoption, or family leave. “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone,” the First Lady said. “We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

One major hurdle exists right on the college campus. Although most co-ed institutions have long eliminated single-sex dorms and female curfews, chauvinistic attitudes and misogynistic climates prove more difficult to abolish. According to a recent report by the National Coalition of Women and Girls in Education, nearly two-thirds of college students, including 62 percent of women and 61 percent of men, experience some type of harassment on campus. Fewer than 10 percent of these cases are reported to the college. Many institutions struggle with defining what constitutes harassment, and do not have policies for investigating misconduct charges in place. Just this month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights resolved a Title IX sexual-harassment complaint filed against Yale University. The OCR issued new regulations on managing sexual-harassment cases, outlining sexual-assault prevention and response training programs, and grievance procedures. While these regulations are a step in the right direction, their effectiveness in ensuring safe and productive learning environments remains to be seen.

Today, gender discrimination in institutions of higher education is still prevalent. The battle continues. President Obama recently exhorted young Barnard graduates to “fight for a seat at the head of the table.” If a girl doesn’t see anyone who looks like her at the table, if she can’t “picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combat commander, she won’t become one.”

At the June 11 opening of the Women in Public Service Institute, part of a project aimed at getting representation of women in world leadership from a paltry 17.5 percent to 50 percent by 2050, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley Class of 1969, told the story of how she changed her mind about running for elected office, against her own inclinations. “As first lady, I went to New York City for a totally unrelated event. It was an event about encouraging young women to participate in sports, and there was a big banner behind the podium where I was going to speak. And the banner said: ‘Dare to compete.’ So this young woman introduces me. She whispers in my ear: ‘Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton. Dare to compete.’ That did it. I thought, Here I’ve been someone telling young women all my life: ‘Compete for what you believe in, whether it’s your community or your country,’ and my words were coming back to haunt me.”

What is needed is a major shift in the cultural imagination. The institutional changes promoted and protected by Title IX over the last 40 years have been instrumental in reconfiguring our ideas of what is possible for women. The results have been encouraging, but we should not be satisfied or complacent. The promise of what can be accomplished is much greater—we owe it to our schools, and more importantly, to the girls and women they educate to do better. The law continues to evolve, and our imaginations with it.

To learn more about women and girls around the world, visit our Women in the World Foundation.