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I woke up Tuesday to the news that I had been invited to the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington DC, where participants will be addressing the same issues raised in interviews and data in my iBook, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy.  Because I live on Maui, almost 5,000 miles from the nation’s capital, I didn’t really expect an invite. 

 

So I’m pretty excited. 

My first hurdle was filling out the registration form and trying to choose breakout sessions.  I want to go to all of the afternoon sessions.  The topics are Caregiving, Talent Attraction & Retention, Structure of the Workplace, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and Non-Traditional Jobs.

I’m not sure how to go to a conference about working families and NOT talk about caregiving – whether of children or parents.  And for most mothers (and many dads), the structure of a workplace has an enormous impact on the ability to care for families, thus affecting what jobs they look for (talent attraction/retention).  But I finally signed up for the STEM and Non-Traditional Jobs session -- because I love to talk about Title IX. 

 

Title IX is also known at the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, named for Hawaii’s first Congresswoman and the first woman of color in either house of Congress.  It passed over 40 years ago, and is most often referenced in discussions about girls and sports.  It says:

"No person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

Because the law is about women being treated fairly in federally funded educational programs, it has been very effective in providing opportunities for girls and women in sports.  But the word “sports” is nowhere in the law.

 

In 2003, in an article entitled:  Title IX and Women in Academics, US Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon cited statistics about inequities in the math, science and technology fields, and described how Title IX should be used to correct those inequities:

“Before Title IX, one in 17 girls in school played sports. Now it is one in 2.5…What Title IX has achieved on the playing field remains undone in the classroom, where the promise of this law was originally directed…Just as America's schools were sent a clear message that they would lose Federal funding unless women were given parity in sports, it's time for our institutions to understand that there will be consequences if Title IX does not become a guiding principle in hiring, tenure, scholarships, and the provision of lab space and equipment.” 

Senator Wyden is interested in more than just equity and justice. Similar to arguments in Lean On and Lead about the economic reasons for supporting women and mothers, he stated:

“America will not remain the power it is in the world today, nor will our people be as healthy, as educated, or as prosperous as they should be, if we do not lead the world in scientific research and engineering development. … Women represent a largely untapped resource in achieving this vital goal. Encouragement through Title IX is more than the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.”

 

Though ten years have passed since the senator wrote these words, women still make up less than 20% of those studying most STEM subjects.  And disturbingly, the percentage of women obtaining computer science degrees has actually dropped in the last twenty-five years.

That is why I was particularly interested in Senator Wyden’s mentions of hiring and tenure in reference to Title IX.  Women are underrepresented as university presidents and tenured professors, and they also face a wage gap.  Interestingly, the gap is relatively small at associate degree institutions, and increases commensurate with the status of the institution.

Enforcement of Title IX with regard to hiring, promotion, and pay would result in more female mentor/role models and improved concrete opportunities for female students interested in science, math, and technology.  Thus, women would have practical reasons for pursuing STEM careers.

 

And there’s more.

Laws are generally accompanied by very specific regulations.  For example, in the last few years, the Obama Administration has drafted new Title IX regulations, particularly in science research, that focus on supporting women’s abilities to succeed academically, while also having time for families. 

Yet though I’ve seen quite a few articles about girls, women, and STEM, unless the news is from a White House press release, Title IX is not often mentioned.  In fact, though Title IX is credited with women’s remarkable educational attainment, the fact that female students and higher education employees can avail themselves of the same law is clearly not well known.

 

And therein lies the problem.

I recently came across a 2013 New York Times article, “Pregnant Without a Policy in Graduate School,” in which the author related stories about grad schools that lacked policies regarding maternity and family leave.  She noted that for women pursuing demanding careers, when it comes to timing, the graduate school years might be best for starting to have children.  However, college and university support for families is inconsistent at best.

What I found most interesting about the piece were the personal anecdotes related by readers in the 164 comments.  Though Title IX regulations provide specific protections for pregnant and parenting students and grad students, in the vast majority of remarks, women described difficult choices they had made about education, careers, and motherhood -- and they were clearly unaware of their rights under Title IX.

I look forward to the dynamic discussions that I know will take place at the White House Summit on Working Families this month.  And I know that we will talk about ways to pass better legislation in support of women and families. 

But I do hope we also talk about how to increase public education and awareness – and of course infrastructural implementation – when it comes to great laws like Title IX that are already firmly in place.  


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