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It's Been 40 Years Since Title IX but There’s Still More Work to Be Done

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 06/21/2017 | General

I was a child in the 70s and Title IX didn’t mean anything to me because I had no idea what it was or did, but the law meant something to me in my lived experience: I could play baseball on the boys’ team.  

While most identify Title IX with women in sports, it’s actually an educational amendment that “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded program or activity.” Under activity is where sport comes in. 

Title IX has had a significant impact on women’s opportunities in sports as well as education, but the root problems of sexism and gender stereotypes still exist. Here are some things to consider:

1. Equal access. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, before Title IX one in 27 girls played sport. Now that number is two in five. This is impressive, but access to sport does not ensure participation. Girls enter sports later than boys (by almost a year) and drop out at higher numbers than boys in middle school. Girls who play sports face perceived and real barriers like access, safety and cost as well strong societal stereotypes. A great example is the US Olympic women’s gymnastic team who cleaned up with medals in 2016, yet there was an inordinate media focus on hairstyles and bad attitudes. What this says is that you can be the best athlete in the world (literally), and still be judged by gender stereotypes (looks matter) and sexist expectations (girls should always smile). 

2. Not all girls are the same. Intersectionality is a term coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw over twenty eight years ago to explain the oppression of African American women. The term has become more widely used to understand how an individual can face increased discrimination based on the overlap of multiple minority social identities (race, ability, ethnicity, socio economic status, etc.) In other words, women as a minority group do not face the same levels of discrimination. Through the lens of intersectionality you can see that Title IX has a different impact on poor girls and girls of color. Girls of color start sport almost a year later than white girls and drop out of sports at greater rates too. Add poverty to the mix, and the numbers increase. Where girls attend school matters too. If under-resourced schools are cutting sports programs, all kids are affected by limited access but girls more so

3. School push out. Title IX makes it illegal for institutions that receive federal funds to discriminate based on sex. The National Women’s Law Center recent research report, Let Her Learn, found that girls are being pushed out of school as a result of discriminatory discipline practices and harassment among other factors. Over half of our nation’s schools have dress codes which are gender specific using words like “inappropriate” and “offensive” to define what causes a distraction in the learning environment. These terms are vague and blame girls for harassment. They can include showing one’s collarbone or not covering one’s buttocks when wearing tight pants. Dress code violators are body shamed by being sent home to change or are often asked to cover up/change to remain in school. Girls nationwide are fighting back with a campaign #iammorethanadistraction

Laws are words on paper until they are lived experiences. As we consider the progress made since Title IX’s inception, we need to understand there’s still much work to be done in sport and school. We need to better understand what discrimination looks like for individual girls and frame policies and advocacy around this. For things to change, we all need to relentlessly challenge discriminatory practices and societal stereotypes that keep girls on the sidelines of life and from pursuing their limitless potential. 


Heather Pressley, PhD


As a teacher and administrator in public, charter and independent schools for 18 years, Heather Pressley continues to educate the world through consulting and writing. Along with geeking out over childhood development research, Heather navigates the world as a Gen Xer among Millennial parents and enjoys spending time in her garden discussing gender roles and race with her daughter. 

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