The resurgence of Title IX and women’s rights in U.S. academia

Less than two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 institutions of higher education in 27 states that it was investigating for improper handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints. Since then, results from surveys looking at sexual harassment and assault in U.S. higher education and in the field have revealed that harassment and assault are the norm, not the exception, for women scientists.

These results have, understandably, worried universities. I won’t pretend that the worry is all altruistic. Universities deal in the currencies of prestige and reputation. Claims, lawsuits, and federal investigations around sexual harassment and assault don’t make for happy university images. Nevertheless, I believe there are many people in positions of power who really do want to do the right thing and have simply been unaware of the scale of the problem.

Interestingly (to me), the legal framework that is driving the federal investigation and many specific lawsuits is Title IX. Title IX is part of U.S. law established in 1972 following the gains made in the 1960’s for civil rights legislation. It reads (in part):

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

Title IX applies to pretty much all colleges and universities in the U.S., because if a student is getting federal assistance, then the university is, too. Title IX’s claim to fame is its application to athletics in higher education. I was a varsity athlete at Brown University in the 1990’s following a major Title IX lawsuit that was brought against Brown for not offering equal athletic opportunity for men and women. The lawsuit (Cohen vs Brown University) was bitterly fought and ended up in a settlement after the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

The impact on Brown athletics in the years following the suit (the ones I was there for) was weird. Women’s athletics received modestly more support. Men’s athletics was materially hurt. And both women’s and men’s non-mainstream sports — like my sport of fencing — suffered the brunt of the fallout [1]. Moreover, the precedent set by the Cohen vs Brown case had repercussions across the country, with universities often choosing to shut down numerous smaller men’s sports teams (fencing, wrestling, water polo, etc.) in order to come into compliance. It was not the sort of result one might hope for, and it caused a lot of resentment against women’s sports and Title IX more generally.

Now Title IX is all over the news again. Lawsuits are blossoming, and the list of institutions under investigation now numbers more than 100. Brown made a new position for a high-level Title IX compliance officer last spring. Harvard did so this fall. And the Department of Education has basically told all the universities that they’re required to hire a Title IX coordinator. Either as a result of these efforts, or because of a fear of federal investigation, several highly acclaimed tenured science professors have been sacked for sexual harassment in the past year.

Title IX has had a strong bite for women’s athletics, both at the collegiate and the high school level, enabling opportunities for girls and women that simply weren’t available previously. It will be interesting to see if it has as much teeth for the socially stickier issues of sexual harassment and assault.

Also interesting to me is that the resurgence of interest in Title IX has not been limited to sexual harassment and assault. I wrote a series of posts in the winter of 2014-15 for Dynamic Ecology about the state of parental leave for postdocs [1 2 3 4 5 6]. Last week, Meg Duffy linked to an amazing new site I had never seen before, The Pregnant Scholar, which focuses on protections for pregnant and postpartum women under Title IX. In my posts in 2014, I wrote about how unpaid job-protected maternity leave is not available in the U.S. But the site itself (and a quick email exchange I had with a lawyer who works for the project) makes it clear: if you are a grad student or postdoc at a U.S. Institution, you are have many legal rights, including protected time off for recovery from birth. Universities must treat pregnant and postpartum women like all people who need accommodation for medical needs.

As far as I know, there are not yet lawsuits to set precedents in the realm of Title IX and pregnant and postpartum women, but there undoubtedly will be. (And my heart and gratitude go out to those women who while trying to do science and parent a baby are — and will be — also taking on their institution and engaging the legal system.) In the meantime, I hope the growing interest in and awareness of the protections for women scientists under Title IX give early career women scientists hope, a decreased sense of isolation, resources for negotiations, and avenues for recourse should they be needed.


1. For example, women’s sports were forced to take more recruits than they could reasonably provide equipment, playing time, and coaching for in order to keep roster sizes up. Men’s varsity roster sizes were so limited that as few as two simultaneous injuries or illnesses meant teams had to forfeit matches. ^

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