When most people hear the words ‘Title IX,’ their minds immediately go to football and field hockey. No wonder—Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act is most known for, quite literally, evening the playing field for young women. But the law, which had its 40th anniversary on Saturday, fully states that no young woman be subjected to discrimination in any “education program or activity.” So why, when the mandate has been used to introduce thousands of young women to soccer balls and softball bats, has it not led to the same increase in women studying mathematics and mechanical engineering?
It’s complicated, according to a recent article in Edweek. Overall, women have made huge gains educationally since the 1970s – they are now going to college at higher rates than young men and earn degrees in fields like law and medicine at nearly equal rates. In admissions and access, Title IX has had a huge impact, retooling admissions and financial aid policies for state institutions that once limited women’s access to higher education. Further, according to a Wharton study, Title IX is likely responsible for 40 percent of the rise in employment in women ages 25-34 over the past 40 years.
However, a pronounced gender gap still exists in STEM education and employment. Changing the writ of law has only been the first step – studies point out that the number of female role models in science, pop-culture portrayals of STEM fields, K-12 curricula structures, societal attitudes, and longstanding hiring and tenure processes at companies and universities all contribute to the persistent, cyclical difference in achievement and opportunity.
In STEM, it starts young. The National Assessment of Educational Progress’s most recent surveys of fourth graders showed a small, but statistically significant gap in both math and science. The gap is more pronounced in science – in fourth grade, girls scored, on average, two points below boys; by 12th grade it widens to six points. Translated, this means only 19 percent of girls are considered proficient in science, compared to 26 percent of boys Recent studies have shown that young girls have internalized the “math is hard” mantra by the age of seven. Women earn only 20 percent of the degrees and hold only 27 percent of the jobs in computer science; despite the rapid growth in STEM related jobs, growth for women in the field has remained flat for the last 12 years.
There are signs of progress. Young women out-enroll young men on exams such as the AP Biology test, and the number of women earning Ph.D.s in STEM subjects has quadrupled since 2006 alone. But until the opportunities for and achievement of young women are even in the lab and on the courts, we’ve still got work to do.