Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Title IX is About More than Sports

In 1972, Title IX was passed. It states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of 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.”

There is no doubt that Title IX was a watershed moment in US history – by 1980 the majority of colleges and universities around the country had become coed, bringing gender equality to classrooms and sports programs and everything in between. Kelsey Clayman, our Program Coordinator at the Global Mental Health Program, played on Harvard’s Varsity Women’s Soccer team as a recruited athlete – a direct beneficiary of Title IX.

With all this good news for gender parity, what’s the problem? Well…Kelsey and her teammates can tell you themselves about the Harvard Soccer scandal.

Scandal indeed – it reminds us that gender-based harassment and discrimination are insidious and prevalent today – despite all the progress we have made with Title IX. Clearly, we have come a long way, but the onus is on each of us to cultivate a culture that translates law into everyday life. This really matters because gender inequity has a pernicious impact on mental health – and this ends up hurting us all. 

1. Gender discrimination from soccer field to Apple. In an interview this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the US will lose its leadership in technology if more women don’t pursue and thrive in technical careers. “If STEM-related fields continue to have this low representation of women, then there just will not be enough innovation in the United States. That’s just the simple fact of it,” Cook said. Yet it is not simply a matter of hiring more women and calling it a day. A recent report on gender in Silicon Valley indicates that 60% of women report unwanted sexual advances at work, 50% more than once, and 65% of the time from a superior. We know work satisfaction, employment, and economic security are all positively correlated with mental health so from Harvard Soccer field to Apple workplace, gender issues are mental health issues.

2. Gender discrimination impacts mental health. The more women experience discrimination and harassment on the job, the more they report symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, increased use of alcohol and drugs, and disordered eating. Other cognitive and emotional correlates include negative mood, self-blame, reduced self-esteem, emotional exhaustion, anger, disgust, and lower life satisfaction in general. This is true regardless of whether the victims associate the harassment with gender. And it remains true even after controlling for experiences of other life stressors, personality traits, and sociodemographic factors.

3. Countries with greater gender equity have better public health. The World Health Organization Commission on Social Determinants of Health has determined that gender inequity is one of the most significant factors impacting women’s health. We all know that societies with gender hierarchies can dramatically disadvantage females compared to males across the many dimensions of relationships, education, employment, and civil rights. Such inequities also translate into women being worse off in terms of their health, including mental health. And conversely, improving gender equity improves women’s health, including mental health.

4. Gender inequity is bad for men, too. The data are clear that men don’t really win in societies where gender inequity is great, even if it might look that way at first glance. Consider that a mother’s mental health has huge impact on children’s health and development. Consider that the apparent benefits of resources, power, authority, and control do not come without significant cost in terms of emotional and psychological health for men – most concretely translated into men having higher rates of high-risk behaviors, substance use disorders, incarcerations, accidents, and reduced longevity.

5. The way forward is together. Systemic gender inequity costs everyone and all of us in many ways. Title IX was a major step in the direction of eliminating discrimination based on gender. It has leveled the playing field for women in many ways, and ultimately that should be a good thing for all; however, the field is still fraught with some rocky and muddy terrain – and we need to be on the same team to win at this game.

Born long after Title IX became law, it’s now up to the millennial generation to speak up and carry the torch forward for gender equity. If Kelsey and her Harvard teammates are any indication, the cause is in exceptional hands.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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