Conservative Media Gets Women's Civil Rights in Education All Wrong

Blog ››› ››› SERGIO MUNOZ

Right-wing media have marked the 40th Anniversary of Title IX by attacking equal opportunity efforts for women in the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering, or math. The historic civil rights law prohibits discrimination in federally-funded education programs or activities on the basis of sex.

Conservative media has not only argued that such affirmative action is unconstitutional, but has gone farther and argued that the law does not apply beyond scholastic sports and requires quotas. They also insist that women simply do not want to study or work in science-or math-related fields. The first three claims are demonstrably incorrect; the fourth assertion contradicts numerous studies and cannot satisfactorily explain the disproportionate  under-representation of women in these educational fields.

On the July 25 edition of Fox & Friends, Gretchen Carlson hosted a segment that touched on all of these discredited arguments in an interview with Hans Bader, Counsel for Special Projects for the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute. Bader concluded the interview by asserting that women are heavily underrepresented in the STEM fields because they naturally choose "organic subjects like people, plants, animals, biology, psychology." Carlson then ended the interview, noting that there "could be" a counter argument to this last claim.

Bader's Fox and Friends appearance is only the most recent example of conservative attacks on the Obama Administration's efforts to utilize Title IX for the promotion of equal opportunity in science and math education.

For example, Sabrina Schaeffer and Carrie Lukas of the conservative Independent Women's Forum did the same on June 18 and June 22 in the Huffington Post and U.S. News, respectively, Fox News Political Analyst Kirsten Powers took aim at sex-based affirmative action on July 17 in USA Today, and New York Post columnist Kyle Smith used the front page to launch a  July 14 op-ed that was particularly reliant on sex stereotypes.

These conservative commentators repeated Bader's false claims: that Title IX's scope is limited to athletics, the Obama administration is proposing quotas, equal opportunity efforts disregard women's aversion to science and math, and affirmative action on the basis of sex is unconstitutional.

All of these conservative critiques are incorrect or unsubstantiated. 

Title IX Is Not Just For Athletics

The text of Title IX makes clear that the law applies to education generally, and not just scholastic sports. In his July 15 New York Post column Kyle Smith claimed that Title IX was "previously an instrument for punishing male athletes for liking sports more than women," an argument about the alleged "broadening [of] Title IX" mirrored by Burke in a July 16 Foundry post. But the actual text of the statute makes clear that these claims are backwards and STEM education is clearly at the core of Title IX's reach:

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. [20 USC § 1681, et seq.]

Title IX Does Not Require Quotas

There are three separate ways to demonstrate compliance with Title IX, none of which involve quotas. As explained in a National Women's Law Center factsheet in reference to athletics:

A school can meet the requirement of providing equal opportunities to play if it can demonstrate any one of the following:

Prong 1: The percentages of male and female athletes are substantially proportionate to the percentages of male and female students enrolled; or

Prong 2: It has a history and continuing practice of expanding athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex; or

Prong 3: Its athletics program fully and effectively accommodates the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. [National Women's Law Center, 1/30/12]

This is well-settled, but the right-wing media continues to recycle this false charge. In her June 22 U.S. News column, IWF's Lukas is only the latest to claim the law's "dark legacy" is an "intrusive quota system."

But Title IX specifically disavows a quota system. As the Department of Justice pointed out:

Some critics claimed that the legislation was intended to try to maintain a certain quota or ratio of male to female students. Senator Bayh reiterated many times during the debate that "the amendment is not designed to require specific quotas. The thrust of the amendment is to do away with every quota." 117 Cong. Rec. 30,409 (1971). The Senator went on to state that, "The language of my amendment does not require reverse discrimination. It only requires that each individual be judged on merit, without regard to sex." Id.


In the end, the House attached a floor amendment to the bill specifying that the legislation would not require quotas. [Department of Justice, Title IX Legal Manual]

Claims That Women Aren't Interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math Contradict Evidence

There are multiple national studies and surveys that show the relative lack of women in science and math education is because "[s]tereotypes and institutional obstacles exist that depress the number of women in STEM fields, including the following:  [g]ender barriers and lack of encouragement... [d]iscrimination, including "stereotype threat"... [and] [f]ewer role models and mentors."

In response, the right wing-media often relies on old sex stereotypes such as those trotted out by Smith in his July 14 column

Imagine (I know, this is a stretch) a Stanford advanced electrical-engineering class that consists entirely of men. How are you going to get women to turn up at and remain there? Handcuffs? Harvard would turn into "50 Shades of Crimson." [New York Post, 7/14/12]

Even without the use of such gross stereotypes, others in the conservative media, such as Powers, continue to insist there are no barriers to women and it is choice, not a lack of opportunity, that explains their under-representation in science and math education:

The National Women's Law Center complains that women need to be better represented in the STEM fields that are more lucrative. This condescendingly assumes that women don't already consider these things when choosing a career.

If women don't want to be computer scientists, it's not Uncle (or Auntie) Sam's job to push them into it. [USA Today, 7/17/12]

Title IX Is Constitutional

Finally, nine separate federal courts of appeal have rejected constitutional challenges to Title IX. Nevertheless, the myth of Title IX's unconstitutionality appears to have reappeared thanks to the frequently-quoted Bader:

Moreover, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, several federal courts have ruled that applying Title IX to education rather than sports is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. [New York Post, 7/14/12]

Bader explains in detail this position in a July 10 posting on the CEI website. However, as Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women's Law Center noted via email to Media Matters:

[Bader] conflates a range of different issues, none of which relate to a focus by the administration in addressing the underrepresentation of women and girls in the STEM fields. Nothing proposed by the Administration would constitute "quotas" or "gender balancing." He also misstates Title IX's requirement that schools provide equal opportunities to participate in athletics - again, there is no "quota" or "gender balancing" there. Finally, I'm entirely unsure how there is a leap to the constitutionality of Title IX, a law that has been around for 40 years and had the benefit of many Supreme Court interpretations that have found otherwise.

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