University of Michigan Hosts ‘Title IX at 40’ Conference

Among a broad range of topics covered at the three-day conference, one of the most pressing is the need to increase interest in and improve access to sports for girls and women of color.

A conference marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits gender-based discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funds, proved a time for enthusiasm about how much progress has been made while also noting the huge barriers to equality that still exist. The presenters and attendees explored topics ranging from injuries to policy to research.

“Our objective in holding this conference is to look to the future in terms of where research needs to go and where efforts need to be put into better understanding the impacts and influences of Title IX,” said Dr. Katherine Babiak, director of the SHARP (Sports, Health, Activity Research and Policy) Center for Women and Girls and associate professor of sport management in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

Title IX at 40 was organized by the SHARP Center, an interdisciplinary research center founded by the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the School of Kinesiology. The center’s mission is to advance research and policy to enhance the lives of women and girls through sport, play and movement.

“There’s a general frustration with the fact that 40 years after Title IX we are still seeing most schools not in compliance with the law. There’s a real desire to figure out how to change that,” says Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, a panelist at the session “Continuing the Progress: The Role of Research on Outcomes and Policy.”

Participants say the conference was not only informative but also turned out to be strategically effective in terms of having presenters from diverse perspectives and disciplines.

One area that came up across disciplines was how to understand and break down the barriers that impede the participation of girls and women of color in sports, according to organizers.

“There are two things that Title IX cannot fix—one is, it doesn’t deal with race discrimination,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director for advocacy for the WSF and professor of law at Florida Coastal School of Law. “Two is, it cannot deal with the model of sports that we have, which includes training year-round for competitive athletes, which is very expensive.”

Inner city schools have limited resources with some phasing out physical education due to budget cuts. Even when girls have physical education in school, their access to elite sports is limited due to cost, time commitment and parental involvement needed. Girls who do excel tend to be clustered in a few sports, such as basketball and track and field.

Research indicates there are also cultural barriers. Starting at the question and answer period following WSF president Laila Ali’s opening keynote lecture, someone asked about discussions of Black women shying away from sports due to issues about their hair. This came up again in some of the workshops.

“We need to have data about it to help drive resource allocation, policy change and cultural change to improve opportunities for women of color,” says Karen Morrison, director of gender inclusion at the NCAA.

She mentions work done by Dr. Susan Woolford of the University of Michigan who has shown positive results in curtailing obesity by using intervention via social media to encourage girls and women to eat healthy and be more active. Similar interventions around issues of hair, Morrison says, “could inspire girls to overcome that concern and stay in activities.”

Another racial barrier discussed was that experienced by women of color who desire careers in college athletics either as coaches or administrators.

“We want to make sure we’re having conversations and gathering data that are directly recognizing the unique experiences women of color have had—whether as participants in sport or as leaders in sport—and see if we can make inroads to improving that,” Morrison said.

In terms of improving overall access, Chaudhry says there are data at the college level, but very little from the high school ranks.

“We need more information about what is going on at the high school level to inform our research and to inform our advocacy to arm communities with the information that they need to go to their schools and demand equality and fairness,” she said.

Strategies for increasing Title IX compliance were addressed. Hogshead-Makar asked people to send photographs of physical inequities between boys’ and men’s athletics versus girls’ and women’s in facilities, equipment, uniforms and travel to TitleIXphotos@womenssportsfoundation.org. She also discussed the necessity of team building, so there is not only one person alone and vulnerable to reprisal when advocating for change in an institution. She also suggested that institutions at all levels develop fact-based questions to ask job applicants who will have decision making power over the allocation of resources.

As a follow-up action to Title IX at 40 conference, the SHARP Center will award a grant for research in one of the four themes addressed in the conference: the link between Title IX and physical health and fitness for women and girls; the link between Title IX and education and employment for women and girls; the link between Title IX and boys and men’s experiences in sport; and the impact of Title IX on American culture: psychological, social and economic influences.

“Sometimes you have to talk at the micro level and sometimes you have to talk at the macro level,” says Morrison. “I thought the conference provided a good blend of both conversations.”