Women’s History Month has been observed in the USA since 1987. The month provides the chance for US schools, universities and local governments to celebrate the achievements of women, look critically at equality and opportunities for women, and educate people on women’s history.
Although higher education in America was originally designed for men, women have made significant gains since the country’s founding. Almost 50 years ago, Title IX brought a new era of equity in education. Women now have access to all areas of higher education. This has allowed them to shape their own futures as well as the world around them.
What is Title IX?
Civil rights laws in the 1960s banned gender discrimination in employment, however similar protection was not available for students at colleges and universities. Women were also widely prohibited from many educational opportunities.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Act into law. Comprised of just 37 words, it decreed:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
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Lawmakers intended Title IX to address every aspect of education. Its protections cover all operations of schools or colleges that receive financial assistance from the federal government. This includes academics, extracurricular activities, athletics and other programs.
The intention of Title IX was not only to open doors to education, but to provide an avenue for enhancing students’ economic futures.
Here are 4 ways Title IX helped expand women’s access to higher education in the USA.
1. Women have more opportunities to play college sports
Title IX has received the most attention for its impact on athletics at educational institutions.
Historically, university support for women’s sports was sorely lacking. In 1971–72, fewer than 30,000 women participated in college sports, compared to more than 170,000 men. Women received only 2% of schools’ athletic budgets, and athletic scholarships for women were basically nonexistent.
By 2010–11, more than 190,000 women played sports at their university, a 600% increase over 4 decades. Women now also received 48% of total athletic scholarships funds for Division I schools (the highest level of college sports in the USA).
Expanding athletics gave women more opportunities to play sports, to receive financial support for their education, and to build valuable leadership and teamwork skills.
Female former student-athletes regularly outperform other college graduates on important career and life outcomes, and are highly represented among business women at the executive level. They also earn more on average than their non-athlete peers.
2. More women earn university degrees
Before Title IX, many colleges and professional schools limited the number of women that could attend or excluded them entirely.
Some required women to have higher test scores and better grades than male applicants. Many scrutinized women’s applications under the assumption that they were more interested in marriage and children, and therefore more likely to drop out.
The late 1970s up to the early 21st century marked a “quiet revolution” of women in the labor force, according to Claudia Goldin of Harvard University. Young women began to anticipate long and continuous careers that would not be cut short by having a family. They invested more in their education and prepared for higher status careers.
In 1950, only one-quarter of undergraduate students were women. Today, women make up the majority of enrolled college students and bachelor’s degree earners in the USA. A greater proportion of American women complete undergraduate degrees.
3. Women are eligible for more financial support
As with athletic scholarships, many women were denied critical financial assistance.
Women were not eligible for prestigious awards, like the Rhodes Scholarship. Men were also given preference in other scholarships, fellowships and loans. Title IX broadened women’s access to financial support and other awards, giving them more opportunities to pursue higher education and follow their dreams.
4. Women can study whatever they want
Girls were often segregated into “softer” classes as early as elementary school. Universities could exclude women from certain fields, such as science and engineering, on the notion that these were “unsuitable” for women. They often limited women’s options to teaching, nursing or home economics. Title IX made such exclusions and segregated tracking illegal.
Before Title IX, most medical and law schools limited the number of women to 15 or fewer per school. In 1972, women earned only 7% of all law degrees and 9% of all medical degrees; they now earn nearly half of all degrees in both areas. Women have also gained ground in many STEM subjects, especially in biological, environmental and chemical/materials sciences.
Opening all academic fields has allowed women to study degrees that best match with their interests and plan careers according to their true aspirations.
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Equal access for everyone
The text of Title IX contains neither the word “woman” nor “female.” It was designed to protect all students and staff from discrimination on the basis of their sex. This has benefited men as well. Fields traditionally occupied by women (e.g., healthcare) have become accessible to all.
Similarly, Title IX requires universities to provide equal opportunities to participate in athletics. Therefore, as women’s athletic participation has increased, men’s sports have also continued to grow.
Room for improvement
The outcomes for women over the past 5 decades have been impressive, however, gaps remain. While research and practice show that girls are as adept at STEM subjects as boys, women still lag behind in “core” STEM fields, such as engineering, math, statistics and computer science.
Women are also underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership due to gender biases, social expectations and the challenges of balancing a career with family caregiving.
These and other issues are often culturally influenced. More progressive policies can help to fill the gaps that education has already tried to address. This should be a priority, as studies show that societies and economies flourish when women succeed. It’s in everyone’s best interest to create a more equitable world for women and girls.
Shape your future with a US degree
Want to pursue your own ambitions? By studying a university degree, you can follow your path to a great career and help to shape the world around you.
Take a look at the degree finder below to see what you can study in the USA.