I was born almost 16 years to the day after Title IX was passed. So this week, as both the law and I celebrate birthdays, I’ve been thinking about what Title IX means to me as a young woman very fortunate to have grown up in a Title IX world.
At first, I started thinking about my mother who graduated college in 1972, the year Title IX was enacted. How would my mother’s high school and college experiences have been different had the law been in place? Would she have played basketball instead of being a majorette? When the University of Pennsylvania mistakenly sent her a male dormitory form, would my grandmother have been afraid her acceptance would be rescinded when she called to ask for a female dormitory form? Would my mother, who graduated at the top of her high school class, still have been tracked out of physics and advanced math? No, probably not.
And then I thought, as much as Title IX has done for women and girls in my lifetime – I played youth soccer (terribly), I studied advanced math and science in high school, I have plenty of female friends studying or working in STEM fields – the stereotypes that make Title IX so important are still alive and well.
That brings me back to my first day of geometry when my male teacher told us that the girls might have a harder time with the material since studies showed that men were better spatial thinkers than women. Perhaps he thought he was just being honest or perhaps he wasn’t thinking at all. Regardless of his intentions, he sent a message to the girls (and boys) in the class that he expected less of the girls and that we should expect less of ourselves.
It’s strange that this has stuck with me so strongly because at the time, I never quite formed the thought that what my teacher had done was wrong. It never occurred to me to tell my parents or another teacher about what he had said.
I was only thirteen. I didn’t know what Title IX was. I didn’t know that my teacher was creating a hostile environment for girls. I didn’t know that telling girls they were less able at math could actually lead to lower performance (otherwise known as “stereotype threat”). I didn’t know that I was being fed the same kind of damaging stereotypes that kept my mother out of physics classes in the 1960s.
I didn’t know that as much as things had changed since the passage of Title IX, some things hadn’t changed enough. Today women and girls still face barriers in the STEM fields – whether it’s a discouraging guidance counselor, harassment from male peers, or a stereotyping professor. But with Title IX, those barriers can be broken down and those attitudes can be changed. I’m confident that when my five year old niece enrolls in geometry, we’ll have some progress to report.