Lost in all the eye-popping news of last week was an event the Obama administration hoped would garner good press: The first White House celebration of the anniversary of Title IX. The landmark legislation ensuring educational equality for women turned 37, and the father of two girls who occupies the Oval Office marked the occasion with a gathering of athletes, scientists, policymakers and advocates.
When President Nixon signed the law requiring educational institutions that receive federal funds to treat men and women equally, he couldn’t have known that he was building a huge new arena for female athletes, but that has been the effect of Title IX. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the White House gathering that the percentage of women students playing college sports has jumped from 15 to 43, and high-school girl athletes multiplied from 300,000 to almost 3 million.
Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes rejoiced in those numbers along with others at the event, but insisted there’s still much work to be done before a girl can expect the same salary and celebrity in the wide world of sports as her brother. “The lack of coverage of female athletics in the media sends them a negative message that women are not important enough to follow,” she said.
It’s not just the media that can discourage aspiring female athletes; it’s the money. Sports like football still command the bulk of college budgets and the biggest hunk of college scholarships. At the high-school level, it’s hard to know whether schools are complying with the law because districts often don’t report what they spend on sports and who’s participating. Two bills introduced in Congress would require the publication of those numbers.
Though it’s women athletes who have championed Title IX, the law applies to all of education and women in science (another field still overwhelmingly dominated by men), and it also showed up at the White House last week. At a time when one in four new jobs will involve knowledge of technology or the use of computers, and more than 60 percent of the slots in graduate schools are filled by women, only about one-quarter of the advanced degrees in mathematics, chemistry, physics and astronomy are awarded on the distaff side. In engineering and computer science, those numbers drop to 18 percent.
A look at university science faculties would be enough to discourage any female student. In 2003, the National Science Foundation found only 28 percent of full-time university positions in the hard sciences held by women, with the full-professor chairs occupied by a mere 18 percent. Despite Larry Summers’ pronouncement when he was president of Harvard that “in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude” that bar women from those fields, women scientists adamantly disagree.
Citing studies that show girls and boys in elementary school equally interested in science, physicist and former astronaut Sally Ride says that girls start losing interest by high school because they “think science and engineering is not for them” – they see no role models and receive no encouragement. So she’s trying “to make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perception of their roles in technical fields” through her special camps for girls and science festivals and games.
We don’t think Larry Summers ambled over from his White House office to witness the celebration of Title IX. His life would have been in danger from the women there. When Summers dismissed “socialization and continuing discrimination” as factors hindering female scientific advancement, his conclusion flew in the face of these women’s experiences.
Women like tennis champion Billie Jean King seek to combat those twin enemies to girls’ achievement through the Women’s Sports Foundation’s support of programs that promote activities and athletics for girls. Like Sally Ride, King is determined to convince girls to go for it.
But girls need something more than the encouragement of exemplary women – they need the enforcement of the laws. That’s why a White House birthday celebration for Title IX matters. But it’s only a beginning. Valerie Jarrett, chairman of the president’s Council on Women and Girls, vowed to review every federal program affecting sex disparities with the promise that “we’re not going to rest on our laurels until there is absolute equality.” That’s a tall order, worth studying as anniversaries of other civil-rights bills occur.
Let’s see, the law forbidding discrimination in employment turns 45 this week. Are you there, Ms. Jarrett?
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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