Feminists Call For Office of Gender Equity Within the Department of Education

Office for Gender Equity
A January 2017 protest in opposition of Betsy DeVos in D.C. (Ted Eytan / Flickr)

Women’s rights organizations are calling on the Biden-Harris administration to form an Office for Gender Equity in the Department of Education to realize the long-overdue promise of educational equity guaranteed by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

“There’s never been very much federal leadership to implement Title IX,” says Dr. Sue Klein, education equity director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who is one of the leaders of effort. “This office would correct that.”

The need for proactive leadership on gender equity in education is more urgent than ever, since the Trump administration has eviscerated Title IX protections for gender equity in education over the last four years.

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidelines requiring schools to investigate and effectively address sexual harassment and assault of students and then issued new regulations making it much harder for survivors to make complaints and get protections. DeVos also withdrew important guidance documents protecting the rights of transgender students and explaining the roles and responsibilities of Title IX Coordinators.

An Office for Gender Equity inside the Department of Education would be tasked with reversing this damage, developing new gender equity initiatives in the schools, and addressing pressing issues experienced by women and girls in education—including access to STEM education, athletics, pregnancy discrimination, and sexual harassment and assault. It would also focus on eliminating compounded discrimination based on race, disability, immigration, English Language Learners, LGBTQ status and poverty.

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In a letter sent to the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team on January 8, over 115 organizations urged the Biden-Harris administration to act quickly to establish an Office for Gender Equity and to appoint a special assistant for gender equity as its director, who would report directly to the Biden’s Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

“Creation of an Office for Gender Equity is critical in restoring and ensuring opportunity, safety, and gender equity in education,” said the letter. “The Office for Gender Equity is immediately needed to obtain public input on revising the Title IX regulations relating to sexual harassment and assault and other rescinded guidance on transgender individuals and Title IX Coordinators.”

Organizations signing the letter included the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), National Organization for Women, the YWCA, the American Association of University Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., National Partnership for Women and Families, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National Women’s Law Center, as well as many state and local organizations.

According to Klein, the office would create a “proactive gender equity infrastructure of Title IX Coordinators and gender equity experts” with state Title IX Coordinators, school district Title IX Coordinators and hopefully a Title IX Coordinator in each postsecondary and K-12 school networked together for training, assessment, and as needed, enforcement of Title IX and related civil rights laws and best practices.

“The vision would be to have a coordinated system where Title IX Coordinators at all levels reinforce and help each other and where interested educators, parents, students and community members participate in the complete eradication of even unintentional sex discrimination and sex stereotyping in and through education,” said Klein.

As envisioned by advocates, the office would ensure full implementation and enforcement of Title IX, with a focus on protecting the rights of women and girls of color, expectant and parenting students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Reporting directly to the secretary of education, this centralized office would engage in policy making, training and federal coordination of gender equity activities of the Department of Education and the parallel women’s issues offices in other federal agencies, including federal health agencies, the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of State.

The office would also make high-quality gender equity resources available to the public, including research, policies, training and student materials through an online Gender Equity Resource Center, serving people at all levels from pre-K to higher education.

The letter also urges Biden and Harris to support the passage of the Patsy T. Mink and Louise K. Slaughter Gender Equity Education Act of 2019 (S. 1964/H.R. 3513), introduced by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Representative Doris Matsui (D-Ca.). The act would create an Office for Gender Equity by statute and authorize $80 million of funding, mostly for grants to school districts to support Title IX Coordinators and others in the implementation of Title IX.

Now that Democrats control Congress, it should be possible to pass a new expanded version of the GEEA.

“What I hope,” said Klein, “is that there is within each school and district, a group of people who work with the Title IX Coordinator, who know about what the Title IX requires, and who are on the lookout for any type of sex discrimination in their school that could be proactively stopped before it even becomes a Title IX complaint. That’s my hope.”

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.