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Visiting Professor Anita Hill leads conversations about Title IX

Attorney, author, and civil-rights advocate moderates The Gender/Race Imperative, a series of talks at MIT about equality in education.
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Anita Hill, a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT, is moderating a series of discussions marking the 45th anniversary of Title IX.
Anita Hill, a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT, is moderating a series of discussions marking the 45th anniversary of Title IX.
Photo: Maia Weinstock/MIT

Title IX has been on the books for 45 years — but in Anita Hill’s view, the historic federal law still has plenty to accomplish.

“I don’t think we’ve neglected Title IX in terms of educational access,” says the noted attorney and author, who is a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT this year. “But I do think we have a lot to do in terms of creating an environment where we’re not just saying ‘Women can now enroll in engineering and science,’ but where we’re actively providing ways to overcome the social barriers and implicit biases that keep women from enrolling — or that cause them to drop out.”

While at MIT, Hill is leading the Gender/Race Imperative, an ongoing series of events exploring Title IX, which mandates equal educational opportunities for women. Her co-host is Muriel Médard, the Cecil H. Green Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and head of the Network Coding and Reliable Communications Group at the Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE).

Thinking about Title IX

How people view Title IX differs based on generation, notes Hill, who is also university professor of social policy, law, and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. “People who were in college in the 1970s and '80s tend to think of Title IX’s impact on women’s sports,” Hill says, citing law’s sweeping changes in college athletics during that period. “Today, young women who think about Title IX think about sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses.”

However, she continues: “If you look at Title IX, you realize that the mandate is quite broad, and the spirt of Title IX is even broader than the actual mandate.”

In fact, Title IX outlaws sexual discrimination in all educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. “This includes admissions, resources, facilities, internships and a whole range of things that happen on the campuses in this country,” Hill says. “It guarantees equal experiences to women and girls in all these areas, as well as in sports, and mandates protections against sexual misconduct."

There's no question that things have improved since 1972. But they haven’t improved enough, Hill says. Forty-five years after Title IX became law, women in academia still face career disadvantages, often based on unfair presumptions about the choices they’ll make regarding childbirth and child care. “Women starting out in their careers typically don’t have kids, but there’s often an assumption that they’ll be having children, and that can be seen as discounting their value,” Hill says.

Research also suggests that many women who receive PhDs still begin their careers with significantly lower compensation packages than those offered to their male counterparts, Hill says. “People have always said that’s because women don’t know how to bargain. But it’s not just about bargaining,” Hill says. “Many of these graduates are teaching at academic institutions, so they’re covered by Title IX. The argument I would raise is that women should not have to bargain to have the law enforced.” In other words: The onus should be on the institutions to pay fairly.

As another indicator, she cites a 2012 Yale University study in which researchers asked more than 125 scientists to review job applications from identically qualified male and female students. The scientists — women as well as men — consistently rated male candidates more highly than their female counterparts. They were also more likely to hire the men, offer them higher salaries, and provide them with mentoring. Bottom line, Hill says: “There are still disadvantages are occurring in science even though we’re giving access in a technical way.”

Disparities remain at the top as well. “We have created opportunities, but the opportunities for leadership have not improved at the same pace. That’s an issue throughout the academy,” she says. “The number of PhDs women have been getting have been increasing for years. But that hasn’t translated to more women college presidents or more women provosts or more women chairs of departments, or more women in other leadership roles. There are many leadership gaps.”

Academic leaders, Title IX, and STEM

Those are among the issues likely to surface during a Nov. 15 panel discussion on academic leaders’ roles in fulfilling Title IX’s promise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Joining Hill for the event are Andrew G. Campbell, dean of the graduate school and professor of medical science at Brown University; Paula Hammond, David H. Koch Professor in Engineering at MIT and head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering; and Zorica Pantic, president of the Wentworth Institute of Technology.

The Nov. 15 session is the third in the series. The opening session featured a panel discussion on the future of Title IX, featuring Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Deborah Slaner Larkin, former CEO and current chief advocacy officer at the Women’s Sports Foundation; and Fatima Goss Graves, CEO and president of the National Women’s Law Center. In the second session, Stanford University Professor Emeritus Robert M. Gray '64 described the history of coeducation — the inclusion of women — on MIT's campus, focusing largely on the 1950s and 1960s, before Title IX was established.

Hill emphasizes that her work and studies at MIT extend well beyond traditional concepts of gender, using the same definition now used in many courts. “I’m using the term ‘gender’ in a very broad sense — not just cis female, not just biological female, but also in terms of sexual identity and gender identity. And I add race into the mix, too,” she says. “My point is that you cannot have full opportunity for all women unless you take into account other identity factors. If Title IX is going to help us create opportunity for women and girls, you can’t have that taken away from someone based on their race.”

As the recent avalanche of unsavory headlines indicates, sexual harassment remains an issue worldwide — and not just on college campuses. That’s a problem Hill knows all too well. She brought the issue to national prominence in 1991, when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had repeatedly harassed her when he was her supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In highly publicized and televised hearings, the all-male committee questioned Hill aggressively; meanwhile, Thomas’s supporters attacked her character and credibility. The Senate narrowly confirmed Thomas’s appointment despite Hill’s testimony, and, as Hill put it a 1997 memoir, "Speaking Truth to Power," her life changed forever: “I am no longer an anonymous, private individual — my name having become synonymous with sexual harassment.”

Today, Hill emphasizes that she’s not looking to serve as MIT’s diversity officer or Title IX point person. “I’m just coming in as an academic who has been doing policy as well as law and has been trying to get different multi-disciplinary views and input into what works and what doesn’t,” she says. “This is just to get different groups of people talking about the same topic and educating us all. My role is not only to present, but to take what we learn from this and try to put it into a framework that can be used in other locations.”

In any case, there’s no danger that the conversations will end anytime soon, she says: “There’s enough to discuss here that we could talk about this for a year and still not duplicate anything.”

The next session in the Gender/Race Imperative series will be held Nov. 15 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Room E51-115. The event, “Fulfilling the Promise of Title IX in STEM: Exploring the Roles University Leaders Play,” is free and open to the public.

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