Gender Equity:

Men's and Women's Participation in Higher Education

HEHS-00-24: Published: Jan 16, 2000. Publicly Released: Jan 16, 2000.

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Discrimination against women in areas such as college admissions, intercollegiate athletics, and employment was widespread 40 years ago. Although civil rights laws in the 1960s barred discrimination in employment, similar protection was not available for students at colleges and universities until the adoption of title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX attempted to address inequities between men and women by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex at institutions receiving any federal financial assistance, including federally backed student loans and research grants and contracts. In the more than 2 decades since title IX was enacted, women's roles in American life have changed greatly, but the effects of title IX on men and women continue to be debated. A study of women's participation in higher education presents only one facet of women's status in our nation's economy and society. Congress asked GAO to review and report on what is known about title IX's contribution to changes in higher education. Specifically, you asked us to (1) determine the extent to which men's and women's participation in higher education academic programs has changed since title IX was enacted; (2) determine the extent to which men's and women's participation in intercollegiate athletics programs at 4-year schools has changed since title IX was enacted; and (3) describe what is known about title IX's effect on men's and women's participation and, more specifically, about how federal enforcement of the law has led to change.

Since title IX's enactment in 1972, women's participation in higher education academic programs has increased significantly, whether measured by the proportion of students enrolled in higher education who are women, numbers of women enrolled, or the proportion of women who have received degrees in certain fields of study in which men were the predominant degree recipients. Women's share of undergraduate enrollment increased to 43 percent in 1971 and 56 percent in 1996. Women's participation in a number of predominantly-male fields--such as business, law, and medicine--has also increased greatly, although changes in other predominantly-male fields, such as engineering and physical science, have been smaller. In some predominantly-female fields, including elementary education and nursing, there have been increases in the proportion of men receiving degrees. In the 1995-96 academic year, first-year college men and women were about as likely to receive financial aid and received about the same average amounts of grant and loan aid. Because various factors such as other civil rights laws and changing societal attitudes have also contributed to changes in women's roles, it is difficult to isolate title IX's specific effect. We found widespread agreement, however, among representatives from the higher education community and title IX observers, regardless of their perspective on current title IX policy, that title IX has contributed to increased opportunities and participation for women, both in the classroom and on the playing field. There was no agreement, however, on whether the law has contributed to the decline in the number of men involved in intercollegiate sports. Although Education has not terminated its funding for a postsecondary institution for a violation of title IX, federal enforcement has had an effect through other means. Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which has the lead enforcement responsibility for most title IX issues, has instead enforced title IX through a variety of methods, including complaint investigations, compliance reviews, and the issuance of policy guidance. OCR's approach to enforcement emphasizes collaboration and negotiation, consistent with statutory requirements to attempt to secure compliance by voluntary means. In addition, private lawsuits have played an important role in title IX enforcement.

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