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As Title IX Celebrates Its Golden Year, Are Women And Girls Really Being Treated Equally?

“Growing up, you get dangerously accustomed to the unevenness between girls and boys sports. As you … [+] grow up, that anger builds.” – Sedona Prince, University of Oregon Women’s Basketball (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)


Before hosting her legendary self-titled television program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, the soon-to-be “Queen of Talk” was a co-host on a local daytime show in Baltimore. And although Oprah was making a name for herself back then, she was not making much money – at least not compared to her male co-host. When she discovered the disparity in pay, she took a bold stand for herself. In the face of intimidation, Oprah decided to speak with the station’s general manager about a raise.

“I’d gone to my boss and said that the guy who was working with me, my co-host on the ‘People Are Talking,’ show, was making more money than I was,” Winfrey says in a 2014 interview at Stanford University.

“I said, Richard’s making more money than I am, and I don’t think that’s fair because we’re doing the same job, we sit on the same show.”

However, her boss didn’t see it that way at all. “My general manager said, ’Why should you make as much money as he? He has children. Do you have children?”

“I said no,” Winfrey remembers. The general manager went on. “He has to pay for college educations. He owns his own home; do you own your home?? So, tell me, why do you need the same amount of money?”

Her response: “Because we’re doing the same job.”

That simple, yet powerful statement is a declaration still for women in sports and education, even as Title IX turns 50.

Title IX was enacted to ensure gender equity, particularly in federally funded education and sports.

No person in the United States shall, based on 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, signed by President Richard Nixon, June 23, 1972

Since Title IX there have been significant strides for women, including recent achievements like the overall college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds being higher for females than for males since 2000.

The intentions of Title IX are noble and there should be no doubt that this law has made an indelible mark on generations of women and girls. At the same time, it must also be questioned in reflection whether Title IX is fulfilling its promise of protecting women from discrimination and underrepresentation in their educational and athletic pursuits.

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Female and female-identifying students and athletes are experiencing sexual harassment, sex- and race-based discipline, and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, and gender identity.

There’s also motherhood bias, too. Take for example Alex Morgan (soccer player) and Aliphine Tuliamuk (marathoner) having to challenge Olympic restrictions that prevented mothers like them from traveling with their nursing babies or young children – essentially forcing them to choose between their commitment to motherhood vs the sport.

Or the recent US women’s soccer team fight for equal pay that had to make its way to the courtroom just so that women soccer players could get equal pay for doing the SAME JOB as male soccer players – and doing it even better!

The US Women’s Soccer Team won their fight for equal pay, resulting in a settlement that included a … [+] multimillion-dollar payment to the players and a promise by their federation to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s national teams. Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Getty Images

So, are women truly being treated fairly five decades after the breakthrough legislation of Title IX? There are a few things that should be considered.

Look around the room…and the field. Universities have a majority of male coaches and administrative staff. Women hold a limited number of coaching and leadership positions, and looking through an intersectional lens, that number is even smaller with women of color. So, while there may be some women in the “room where it happens,” those women are usually the doers (mid-level at best positions), not the decision makers.

It’s truly reflective of much of corporate America, where the leadership at the top is lacking in gender and racial diversity.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of pay equity. 50 years later, progress is slow. For example, the average NBA player earns $5.3 million a year, according to 2021-2022 data from Basketball Reference. Star players earn up to 10x that amount. By comparison, WNBA players earn an average of $130,000 a year.

Some defenders of this pay inequity say that it should be this way because men’s sports are more marketable than women’s sports. That argument is reminiscent of excuses as to why women are not being advanced into leadership in tech or finance and other male dominated industries. Sounds like a cop out.

Is it really because women can’t pull in the numbers (people or dollars)? Or are they being blamed or penalized for the systemic issues that have historically excluded women and girls from equal access to opportunities and resources to be able to dominate in their respective sport? More on that in the next point.

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Inspect the investments. The NCAA spends more money on men’s sports than women’s. That’s a fact. But in their defense, the NCAA technically does not have to abide by Title IX because they’re not federally funded. Also, television sports networks, like ESPN and CBS, are not federally funded so they do not have to equally represent men and women’s sports. And they don’t. However, broadcast agreements and corporate sponsorships pour money into men’s collegiate sports, when many of those institutions are federally funded. Because of that, there’s lots of attention and dollars spent on men’s championships over women’s championships even within the same sport.

Then there’s the issue of training, resources, and amenities for women in sports being drastically different (embarrassingly so) than that of men in sports. A now viral TikTok video posted last year by University of Oregon’s women basketball players highlighted these stark differences. The video showed meager equipment, just a stand of free weights and some yoga mats, in the women’s small weight room during their championships. In comparison, the men’s room was far more spacious. It was an ultramodern weight complex with rows of equipment, and power racks. For lunch, the women athletes had boxed meals while the men had catering that included steak and lobster mac and cheese. These athletes were in the same place doing the same job for their schools.

Findings from a 2021 review of the incident came down to 3 key recommendations:

Change the leadership structure to prioritize gender equity.
Have the budget to appropriately and equitably address gender differences.
Develop equity in staffing.

In other words, it says, “Put your money where your mouth is.” And the same could be said about advancing women in business. Because what an organization is investing in reveals what they genuinely care about. The reverse is also very telling.

Empathy and equity cannot be legislated. The law set forth by Title IX cannot dictate whether people will do the right thing or not. Yes, the law can make certain mandates. But on its own, on paper, it cannot make meaningful change. That must come from people who are in a position to make a difference being willing to be empathetic, human-centric partners with the players, students, and leaders who happen to be women. This is what leads to real transformation no matter what the industry is.

Think about it. What lies behind the apathy and okay-ness of paying women less and investing in them less? Seeing them as lesser people? Because if not, then wouldn’t the investment be the same? There would be restless concern and corresponding actions towards things like having

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Empathy for what it feels like to be underpaid for working hard
Compassion for athletes who are mothers
Curiosity around what the experience is like being a woman or girl in competitive sports

Women are carrying the mental and emotional weight of this onto the court, field, conference room, etc., knowing that they are being treated differently than their male counterparts. They grow up getting used to things being unfair. It’s normalized, but never not noticed.

Medtronic, a global leader in healthcare technology with over 90,000 employees and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recently achieved 100% pay equity for their entire US sales team. One woman in leadership there said, “I thought about it every day. I thought about how I did the same job as men in my same position, yet they made more money than me.”

Medtronic achieved this pay equity feat in under two years, and over the pandemic. It speaks to intention. From the top down, they wanted equality in pay, so they put in the infrastructure and intention to do so.

Now, the question is, if that could happen in such a short time, isn’t 50 years plenty of time to also achieve gender equity in the sports industry?

Sedona Prince, the University of Oregon forward who posted the previously mentioned TikTok video, says “Growing up, you get dangerously accustomed to the unevenness between girls and boys sports. As you grow up, that anger builds. It loads in the background, behind the smiles, friendships and celebrations.”

Fifty years post an important ruling like Title IX, there shouldn’t be so much talk about what it’s meant to do. It should just be doing it.

As a mother of two sons and two daughters, all who are soccer players and ski racers, I support their love of their sports and their dreams about playing in college or even professionally someday. I don’t want to have to have this conversation with my girls, but it is important to me that they understand that despite Title IX, they will have to fight twice as hard as their brothers for the same opportunities in the world of sports, education, and business. Not because they aren’t as good. Not because they do a different job. Simply because they are women.

Women and girls, in this generation and beyond, deserve more – whether the law demands it or not.

Hopefully, we can celebrate the next milestone birthday of Title IX recognizing that all that glitters about it actually IS gold…medals included!

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