No one can dispute the opportunities Title IX has created for girls to play sports.
One often-cited statistic proves the point: The number of girls who play high school sports nationwide has expanded more than tenfold since Title IX was signed into law June 23, 1972. State data doesn't go back as far, but the story's similar in Illinois, where the number of girls playing high school sports has grown 58 percent since the 1989-90 season.
"Title IX has had a huge impact on female athletic participation," said Cheryl Cooky, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology and the Women's Studies Program at Purdue University. "Title IX has created a generation of girls who now feel entitled to the right to play sports. That's a big change."
But there's a catch. The 40-year-old civil rights law regulates much more than sports, a fact experts say very few people know, in part because schools don't teach much about the law and media coverage often focuses solely on athletics.
Title IX prohibits all schools that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity.
That means schools must not discriminate in admission to classes in science, technology, engineering and math, often abbreviated as STEM. They can't shepherd girls into basic nursing classes and boys into auto shop. They have to provide the same assistance to pregnant or parenting students that they would to any other student with a temporary illness or disability. And they must protect students from sexual harassment, defined as unwelcome verbal or physical conduct related to a student's sex.
None of these areas is spelled out in the law, but the catchall of "educational program or activity" includes them in a mandate that says discrimination on the basis of sex just isn't allowed.
In nonathletic areas of education, experts say it's tougher to tell how much progress toward equality has been made. Stats on sports are carefully kept, but regulatory agencies aren't as closely tracking how many girls and boys take high school STEM electives, and schools often don't know what constitutes sexual harassment that must be reported, said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women.
As Title IX's athletic successes are celebrated, some are shifting their focus to STEM in the quest for gender equality in education, saying the law that has created so many opportunities for girls and women in athletics can do the same in the high-paying world of STEM careers.
"The STEM areas are the new frontier for Title IX," Maatz said. "I think that's where you'll see the most impact in the next 40 years."
The STEM frontier
Preventing discrimination or exclusion in STEM education is important, experts say, because unequal opportunities may be partially to blame for the traditionally low number of female engineers and scientists.
President Barack Obama's administration is evaluating what could be included in a Title IX compliance test for STEM and whether it could encompass criteria similar to the "three-prong" test for compliance in athletics, Maatz said.
Under the test, schools can prove compliance by showing a history and continuing practice of expanding athletic opportunities for girls, by proving the interests of both sexes are being met, or by making sure percentages of girls and boys participating in sports are proportional to percentages of girls and boys enrolled at the school.
The idea of applying a proportionality test to student populations in STEM classes scares some educators and at least one women's group.
"This idea that we would try to create a quota system in the one discipline left where women are not outpacing men shows the enforcement is skewed," said Carrie Lukas, managing director of the Independent Women's Forum, a nonprofit conservative research and education organization. "I don't think Title IX is really fighting discrimination anymore when it comes to women having an opportunity to participate in academic life. That's a battle that has already been won."
Numerical equality is not what educators should strive for in STEM, said Diane Hinterlong, an assistant principal and former physics teacher at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.
"I'm not sure 50/50 is even our goal," Hinterlong said. "Our goal is to make sure we haven't had female students close doors to opportunities that they didn't even know they had."
At IMSA, girls make up 48 percent of the school's population and have the same opportunities as boys to take STEM electives. Principals at Barrington, Conant, Naperville North and Neuqua Valley high schools say the same goes for girls in their buildings.
Conant Principal Tim Cannon said the school leads a STEM conference for sixth-grade girls and promotes its engineering courses to girls at the high school level.
Fewer girls than boys take upper-level physics electives at IMSA, but Hinterlong said that's because of factors such as fear of getting bad grades or disinterest in physics activities, which typically include a lot of "blowing things up."
Title IX advocates say creating some type of compliance test for STEM would remind schools that the law's nondiscrimination mandate applies to more than just sports. It also could work to reverse trends that have seen the numbers of women in some STEM fields, such as computer science, decrease over the past 20 years, said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center.
The trick to creating such a test is finding measurable outcomes schools can use to prove they are not excluding girls from STEM electives.
Identifying data that proves gender-based exclusion is not occurring is a challenge, especially because discrimination 40 years post-Title IX is not obvious, experts say.
"No longer are you going to see the sort of overt exclusion from traditionally male programs that you saw prior to Title IX," Goss Graves said. "But the work is certainly not done in the area of STEM."
Some say Title IX's work is not done in sports, either, but high school athletic directors say they are offering an equal range of opportunities for girls and boys and treating the genders fairly in terms of equipment, coaching and facilities.
"At the high school level right now, most school districts have done a remarkable job making sure there's equity," said Steve Gertz, an athletics administrator who has worked at Streamwood and Burlington Central high schools and now is beginning his first year at Grayslake Central.
Female athletes say they notice the focus on fairness. Glenbard East volleyball player Catherine McKinney, a 15-year-old sophomore from Lombard, said her school offers equal opportunities, promotes coed play at summer camps, and allows girls and boys to be volleyball trainers for the opposite sex's team.
Without such athletic opportunities, "I honestly wouldn't be happy," Catherine said.
At Naperville North, girls cross country is considered the school's premier athletic program -- above even football and boys basketball -- but interest in other girls sports, especially basketball, is declining, athletic director Jim Konrad said.
"It's a girls' choice thing, not an accessibility thing," he said.
Naperville North female athletes say they can't imagine school without the chance to compete, although many don't know of the law that made their participation opportunities possible.
Emily Smith, 16, of Lisle, a senior on the girls cross country team, and teammates Tracy Korn and Alexa Kurtides, both 17, of Naperville, all said they don't know what Title IX is. Some high schools teach about Title IX in history, government or minorities classes, albeit briefly.
"We use Title IX as an example of the progress within the legal system to require schools to recognize and protect women's participation in athletics," said Kermit Eby, who teaches a Minorities in American Society class at Naperville North.
While athletic directors say they're meeting student interests, numbers show they don't live up to the proportionality prong of the Title IX compliance test.
Among 17 schools that provided athletic participation and school population data to the Daily Herald, Glenbard South came closest to matching its percentage of female athletes to its percentage of female students. Girls are 45.4 percent of the school's athletes and 48.9 percent of its population.
Crystal Lake Central High School was furthest from proportionality, with girls making up 39 percent of its athletes and 49.3 percent of its students, for a 10.3 percentage point gap.
Athletic directors stand by their Title IX compliance in sports, even if not by the proportionality test.
"In these kinds of communities, there's no way we wouldn't continue to support our females participating athletically," Konrad said.
As thousands of female athletes in Illinois compete in fall sports, athletic directors say the law that made their participation possible is still relevant 40 years later.
Even if Title IX compliance in 2012 isn't about creating new girls teams or allowing girls to take wood shop and boys to take foods for the first time, it's still a backdrop for an educational approach of equal opportunity, Conant Principal Cannon said.
In athletics and in education as a whole, Title IX is "a good safeguard to continue to have in place," Gertz said.
History lessons can offer a glimpse at the less inclusive past, when girls' athletic opportunities were limited to rare field days and academic opportunities largely pointed them toward a housewife's life. But with gender equity in education mandated four decades ago, the failures of the past must not taint the decisions of the present, the AAUW's Maatz said.
"You really need to enforce the law where you're at now," she said. "It needs to be about the law today, where students are today, and what needs to improve."
Suburban educators agree.
"I think it's not about the Title IX anymore," said Doug Mullaney, athletic director at West Chicago Community High School. "It's just about equal opportunities for all kids."