40 years after Title IX, women still lag in tech fields
By Mary Beth Marklein and Polina Marinova

WASHINGTON – Legendary tennis pro Billie Jean King showed up at the White Houseon Wednesday to mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX. So did astronaut Mae Jemison.

You thought Title IX — the federal legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in all educational programs that receive federal financial aid — was about sports, didn't you? Contrary to popular belief, athletics is not mentioned in the landmark legislation enacted 40 years ago Saturday.

On Wednesday, a White House conference celebrated the gains women have made in 40 years. The number of college female athletes has increased from 30,000 to 190,000. The number of girls participating in high school sports has increased 1,000%.

On the academic side, women earn the majority of degrees at the associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral level.

Yet their numbers lag in what are known as the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.Education Department data show, for example, that just 17% of engineering and 18% of computer science-related bachelor's degrees in 2009-10 were awarded to women. Women make up 25% of the STEM workforce.

Several conference participants, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and King, stressed the economic imperative for encouraging more girls to pursue careers in STEM fields.

"As far as the STEM area of it, it's so important in this country to be competitive with the rest of the world no matter what endeavor it may be," King said. "In my day I had to compete against Europeans and Australians. Now you're competing against the whole world."

"The STEM issue is to some of us, a national crisis. The more women that get involved in it, the better off we'll be as a nation," said Carnegie Mellon University president Jarod Cohon.

A number of federal initiatives aim to boost women's participation in STEM education. A congressionally mandated report released last week recommended that research universities do more to attract women and underrepresented minorities into STEM majors. In his $4.25 billion Race to the Top competition, President Obama gives preference to schools that close the STEM gap.

Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the non-profit Independent Women's Forum, which is critical of Title IX, said efforts to level the STEM playing field could have the opposite effect: "If we don't have enough women in engineering, are the schools going to cut engineering programs?" said Schaeffer, who spoke Wednesday at a separate Title IX event in Washington. "We have to recognize that men and women are different and are going to make different choices."

How did sports claim the Title IX spotlight?

Neal McCluskey, of Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has a couple of theories. It may be that sports rosters are easy to count. Another: "Women concerned with sports equity have just been a lot more vocal and better organized, perhaps, than women who are interested in science."