Title IX could help expand the ranks of women in engineering and science. But few know this.
An important legal tool is often overlooked in the effort to increase the number of women in engineering and science faculties and in graduate programs: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This law requires gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding. It prohibits institutions from engaging in conduct or implementing policies that, whether deliberately or inadvertently, treat students or employees differently on the basis of gender.
In the 35 years since its enactment, Title IX has enabled women and girls to make great strides toward equal participation in high-school and intercollegiate athletics. Yet, while the law has also helped open up medical and law schools to women, many educators and students fail to recognize that it reaches well beyond sports. Title IX has made little dent in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This may be one reason why, overall, women account for fewer than 1 in 5 faculty members in computer science, mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences. In engineering, just over 1 in 10 faculty members are women and are concentrated in the more junior ranks.
The U.S. Department of Education has uncovered several cases in which educational institutions failed to comply with their Title IX obligations. And the Government Accountability Office found that federal granting agencies do not routinely verify compliance. Further, the GAO reported that relatively few Title IX complaints had been filed with the four federal agencies that grant the most funding to STEM research at the college or university level. Faculty and students did not file complaints because they did not know they could, the GAO concluded.
While sports programs were pressured to change as a result of high-profile court decisions, we at the Society for Women Engineers don’t believe that this is the best way to address gender inequities in the higher-education STEM fields, because it may make people wary of embracing Title IX as a tool for constructive change. But there are other ways that the law can be used to remove the procedural, environmental or cultural obstacles to equal opportunity.
SWE’s recommendations include the following:
- Universities and colleges should self-assess their Title IX compliance, cooperate with Title IX reviews by federal funding agencies, and examine institutional policies, procedures and practices for gender bias.
- Policymakers should undertake a comprehensive campaign to educate students, parents and STEM faculty about their rights under the law.
- Federal agencies should initiate regular, systematic compliance reviews of all affected programs across institutions. All funding agencies should adopt a consistent approach. The results of these reviews should be distributed widely.
- Federal agencies should disseminate promising practices from programs that promote gender equity in STEM fields, such as National Science Foundation ADVANCE grants or programs offered under the framework of “Women in Science and Engineering” to encourage broader participation by the STEM academic community.
When SWE Executive Director and CEO Betty Shanahan discussed these recommendations at the Engineering Deans Institute in April, she encountered a spectrum of reactions. Some deans argued against invoking Title IX; others expressed appreciation for the law as a means for improving the retention of women students.
Colleges and universities need to understand not only their obligations under Title IX but also the opportunity the law provides to draw the best possible faculty and students into engineering and science. SWE stands ready to help.
More information about SWE’s Title IX educational efforts can be found at: http://www.swe.org/publicpolicy.
Cathy Pieronek, director of academic affairs and the Women’s Engineering Program at the University of Notre Dame College of Engineering, is Title IX Lead, Society of Women Engineers.