Not Just for Sports: Science Benefits from 37 Years' of Title IX Anti-Discrimination Law

Shirley Malcom

The Title IX law has helped women in the United States make significant educational strides, but financial and cultural support still are needed to help women pursue careers in science and math and to assume "positions of power" in those fields, said AAAS's Shirley Malcom at a White House roundtable this week.

The 23 June conference, held to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the law barring education discrimination based on sex, featured prominent athletes such as tennis champion Billie Jean King and Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes. But while Title IX is best known for its support of women student athletes, its broad focus has helped women overcome obstacles in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, said Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

Underscoring the importance of STEM education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced at the roundtable a new award of $2.4 million in grants to help high school girls improve their proficiencies in math and science. The grants were made under the Women's Educational Equity Act Program, which provides financial assistance to help educational agencies meet their Title IX requirements.

Support for Title IX, through the newly established White House Council on Women and Girls and other venues, "is absolutely critical for the success of our students and for the competitive future of our nation," Duncan said.

Since the law was enacted in 1972, the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women has increased from 16 to 49 percent. "Title IX was critical in opening that door," said Joyce Winterton, assistant administrator for education at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, "but women and girls still have to choose to go through it."

And even when women choose the doctoral door, they exit facing high debt, low salaries, and institutional obstacles that may keep them from becoming the academic leaders who can inspire a new generation of women researchers, Malcom said. "We're basically using only 50 percent of our talent, which is tying our hands behind our back," she said, "at a time when the challenges we face are so very grave and important."

King recounted Title IX's history, noting that the 37th anniversary celebrates "the 37 words that made up one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century." She added, "It's about the health of girls and women--the mind, body, and the soul."

Geometry was the subject that interested King as a student--once she realized how its angles were related to her on-court strategies. When she teaches tennis to young players now, she said, she talks about everything from kinesiology to depth perception "to get them excited about the science and math in sports."

"You know, Billie, lots of people complained about Title IX in STEM fields, about wanting to push women into places where they're not interested," replied Malcom. "But interest is stimulated in these fields by tying them to things they already care about. It's something you're not born to do, but inspired to do."