Screwing with Title IX

When it comes to Title IX, the Bush administration can’t figure out if it’s pitching or catching. Most Americans associate Title IX with the incredible burst in participation rates for girls in high school, college and ultimately professional sports. Signed into law in 1972, Title IX requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding (few if any refuse all federal support) to spend equal amounts of money on men’s sports and on women’s sports.

The boost Title IX gave to girls and women has helped them well beyond the bounds of the gymnasium or the soccer field. Experts credit team-sports training with helping women advance in corporations and in politics.

Despite all this, even after three decades, the law never succeeded in leveling the college sports playing field (arghhh _ a cliche, I admit). Most estimates are that colleges funnel some 60 percent of their sports funding into men’s programs, and around 40 percent into women’s sports. Nonetheless, in 2002 the Bush administration made a widely decried attempt to weaken enforcement of Title IX. Washington was deluged with letters, calls and e-mails from angry parents, saying, “Don’t touch Title IX.” A USA Today poll taken at the time showed that 7 in 10 Americans familiar with Title IX wanted it left alone or strengthened, not weakened. The Department of Education sprinted hastily away from its failed plan.

Nestled in the comforting bosom of a second term, the administration moved again, this time much more stealthily, to weaken Title IX enforcement. This time, the tactic worked. The public never caught on. The effort received much less media attention, and the weakened enforcement mechanism is now in place. It will most likely be years (and well after this unpopular crew has split town) before we see the impact on women’s participation in college sports. It will likely drop.

But this past week the Bush administration did something uncharacteristic and unexpected. It announced it would explore the possibility of using Title IX as a tool to channel more women into the studies and fields of science and math. Helping women with Title IX instead of hurting them? Unheard of, at least by this administration.

Conservative outrage was palpable and immediate. The complaints were entirely predictable: Why isn’t the Bush administration doing more for men who want to enter female-dominated fields such as social work and nursing? The answer is equally obvious: Fewer men enter pink-collar ghettos because those jobs pay less.

The administration’s move comes at a time when women have made progress in some sub-sectors of science- and math-related jobs, but not in the highest-paying sectors. And there even are areas where progress made decades ago is rolling back. A July 2000 article in The New York Times, “Computer Science Not Drawing Women,” reported that the percentage of computer-science degrees awarded to women dropped from 37 percent in 1984 to 20 percent in 1999.

Why is this happening? Cultural attitudes don’t advance quickly. Preconceptions held for hundreds of years don’t change in a couple of decades. Progress takes eons. Just ask the members of the Duke University lacrosse team who still think it’s mint-julep time on the porch at Margaret Mitchell’s antebellum Tara. Women are still viewed as chattel by certain swaths of society. Most Luddites, however, are sophisticated enough to keep their attitudes from public view.

It’s not hard to understand why the Bush administration would seek to roll back women’s and girls’ gains in sports. The president’s evangelical base abhors women’s advancement. But what is highly curious is why the same crowd would suggest advancing women in science and math. Perhaps it has to do with sagging poll numbers. More likely it could be the brainchild of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, a much more mainstream politician than her extremist boss. Or maybe it’s just a public-relations sop to the middle, on which the administration never planned to follow through.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)