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Ensuring Inclusion of Women in Science

GAO report looks at how federal science agencies monitor grantees' compliance with Title IX

by Susan R. Morrissey
August 30, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 35


In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was enacted by Congress to bar gender discrimination in "any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." That law has had success in providing greater opportunities for women and girls in university sports programs, but there is concern that it has been underutilized in areas such as math, science, and engineering.

The application of Title IX to these areas was the focus of a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO, formerly General Accounting Office) report. Released in July, "Gender Issues: Women's Participation in the Sciences Has Increased, But Agencies Need To Do More To Ensure Compliance with Title IX" (GAO-04-639) was prepared at the request of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) following a 2002 hearing on this topic.

The report looks at how four federal science agencies—National Aeronautics & Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Education and of Energy—make sure that their grantees comply with Title IX. The report also includes data on the progress of women in these fields.

From its investigations, GAO reports that all four of the agencies have "made efforts to ensure that grantees comply with Title IX in [math, science, and engineering] by performing several compliance activities, such as investigating complaints and providing technical assistance." In cases where complaints were made to NASA, NSF, or the Energy Department, the report notes that they are properly referred to the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for investigation.

However, when it comes to doing periodic, agency-initiated, compliance reviews of grantees that are required by Title IX, three of the four agencies have faltered, the report says. In these reviews, federal agencies assess grantees to make sure they are complying with Title IX. For example, grantees must show that their programs follow Title IX's rules, they must have an assigned person to coordinate efforts and set up compliant procedures, and they must inform students and employees that sex discrimination is prohibited in their programs.

The report finds that the Education Department was the only agency studied to have done any reviews in this area. The Education Department reported to GAO that it had done three in the math, science, and engineering areas since 1993.

On the basis of this finding, the report recommends that NASA, NSF, and the Energy Department take steps to fully comply with Title IX regulations by doing periodic compliance reviews.

The report also notes that over the past 30 years, "women have made substantial gains as professionals in [math, science, and engineering], particularly in the life sciences." For example, in 1960, 1% of engineers, 8% of scientists, and 26% of mathematicians were women. By 2003, these numbers had grown to 14%, 37%, and 33%, respectively.

ALTHOUGH WOMEN have significantly increased their presence in these fields, the report notes that women remain a "less than well-tapped resource" in the U.S. scientific workforce. The report goes on to say that Title IX can be better leveraged to increase the participation of women in these fields.

"The good news is that women have made some gains. The bad news is that federal agencies responsible for enforcing Title IX have not used all the tools at their disposal to completely level the playing field for women in these areas," Boxer said when the report was released. "I join my colleague, Sen. Wyden, in calling on the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF to move quickly to ensure that the promise of Title IX is kept."

In response to this report, officials from NASA, NSF, and the Energy Department note that steps are being taken to increase compliance with Title IX. They each note that they are working toward initiating compliance reviews of their grantees.

"Right now, we are assessing where we are," says Bijan Gilanshah, assistant general counsel at NSF. In the past, NSF believed that the Education Department had agreed to conduct compliance reviews on the agency's behalf, but it will now find other ways to get the reviews done.

To this end, he notes that NSF is working with other federal agencies through the Department of Justice--which is charged with coordinating agencies' efforts under Title IX--to develop an efficient process for doing compliance reviews. Having a coordinated effort will be essential to maximize limited agency resources and minimize grantee disruption, he says.

"The first step is to make sure we don't have duplicate efforts," Gilanshah notes. For example, he explains that it's important to avoid a situation where multiple agencies are doing compliance reviews simultaneously at the same university.



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