Title IX at 50 years: An uplifting story of perseverance and strength in higher education
Thirty years ago, a group of female athletes sued Brown University in a landmark case (Cohen v. Brown University) that helped paved the way for women to gain equal footing with men in sports through Title IX. One of the plaintiffs was Lisa Kaplowitz, a 17-year-old star gymnast who testified about the opportunities she lost when the program was initially cut and the unfairness of that decision.
“During my testimony to show the inequalities, I held up a pair of men’s gray boxer briefs,” Kaplowitz recalls. “These were standard-issue shorts for men and women. Obviously, they didn’t fit women so well. I said, ‘This is a sign that their assets are getting protected and ours aren’t.'”
The courts agreed. Brown was forced to temporarily reinstate the gymnastics and volleyball programs to varsity status during her final two years and eventually lost the case in 1996 after Kaplowitz had graduated. The victory was groundbreaking for women’s athletics and for the strength of Title IX, more than two decades after it was stamped under the Educational Amendments of 1972 as a vehicle for change and equal opportunities for all. On its 50th anniversary Thursday, it remains the benchmark for women, people of color and those with disabilities in the fight for justice and equality, though it is often challenged by institutions that attempt to, sometimes unknowingly, skirt compliance.
That immense legislation has been empowering for individuals like Kaplowitz who have been impacted but not deterred from becoming transformational leaders. She became an investment banker in a male-dominated industry and later a chief financial officer in private equity-backed startups before landing in higher education at Rutgers University. An assistant professor in finance and economics, she co-founded the Rutgers Center for Women in Business to help others overcome barriers to achieve success.
“When I came into academia, I noticed that there were pockets of programming for women at Rutgers Business School, but there wasn’t anything comprehensive and cohesive,” Kaplowitz said. “The advocacy that I experienced and gained during the Title IX case is really what fueled my passion to continue it later on. We do three things: remove barriers, build community and empower women. It works to change systematic inequalities that exist. That directly correlates with what we were trying to do during the Title IX case. I didn’t realize that at 17 years old, but we were really trying to change the power structure.”
Though Title IX offers robust protections—“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”—it continues to be challenged throughout education, both in K-12 schools and universities. It is often connected with athletics, where women have managed to increase college representation from 15% to 44% in 50 years.
But they still face obstacles. A recent ESPN report noted that 100 collegiate athletic programs have been on the chopping block since the start of the pandemic, including many on the women’s side. Stanford University last year had to reinstate several women’s programs set to be cut because of imbalance, as Brown did in the 90s. The fight never seems to subside, for athletes and for others on campuses.
“Depending on which statistic you look at, 80 to 90% of institutions are not in compliance with Title IX,” Kaplowitz says. “BIPOC students, girls and women are still lacking opportunities to play sports as compared to white girls and women. Title IX is more than just numerical representation of equal numbers. We’re still lagging in practice time preferences, travel and tournament budgets, and salaries that are paid to the coaches and the women’s game. Scholarship dollars are significantly less for women. Those are things that still need to evolve, even with Title IX. I’m happy to see that it has expanded beyond sports because everybody needs to have a safe environment to study, to learn and to grow.”
Why is Title IX so critical? It empowers leaders
Kaplowitz’s story is both heart-wrenching and inspirational, yet not unlike others who face potential bias. A gymnast nearly on par with competitors who wound up in the Olympics, she turned down several offers to sign with Brown. She then got the news that the team was being reduced to club status. Her family was on government assistance, so she had few options. She decided to stay at Brown after a coach convinced her they would “raise enough money to compete.” They didn’t. So Kaplowitz, fellow gymnasts and two volleyball players decided to become plaintiffs in a case against Brown.
“Because I was the last one recruited, I became the poster child to demonstrate that athletes were interested in playing sports at Brown, athletes were at that elite level but weren’t able to play, and that Brown needed to create the opportunity for us,” she said. The process was slow, but the courts eventually granted them an injunction, and they were elevated back to varsity. Her testimony not only helped change the landscape for athletics, but it also sparked a modern-day necessity: standard-issue sports bras for women.
She recalls the struggles of those moments—no access to trainers, no access to a locker room, having a bus with a door that didn’t close in the winter, and a lack of support campus-wide. But out of that came three things. The first was the appeal that was upheld by the Supreme Court, which set the precedent for Title IX. The second was that Brown added women’s teams without cutting any men. And the third, Kaplowitz says, was “the lessons of leadership, time management, teamwork and perseverance. All of that is what makes us better leaders and better co-workers after graduation.”
Kaplowitz cited statistics that show the vast majority of women who are in C-Suite positions have competed in athletics, including nearly half at the college level. She says those opportunities are also critical to competing in the job market, where overcoming bias and discrimination may exist. Her continuation at Brown helped her stay on her career path and inspired a passion to help others. She has been on the board of a nonprofit called PowerPlay NYC that works to empower girls through sports. She also co-founded an affinity group for women athletes at Brown, where she is a member of its Hall of Fame, to help guide current students with career advice and mentoring.
“When more women are playing sports, they’re training themselves to be leaders,” she says. “You see this virtuous cycle of investing in women continuing. Abby Wambach and Billie Jean King are two of the many founders of a professional soccer team in Los Angeles. Serena Williams is a venture capitalist investing in women- and minority-owned businesses. When you have more women playing sports, they get into leadership roles. Studies have shown that when women have economic independence and are compensated equally, it increases the overall economy. It increases GDP. Those are all positives that are direct results of Title IX.”
Still, there is work to be done, as evidenced by the hundreds of cases still pending in the courts related to Title IX. So what needs to change for a full embrace of the legislation to happen? Kaplowitz says leadership at institutions and businesses must evolve. “It has to be prioritized. When you have a more diverse group of individuals making decisions—Brown just hired a new athletic director, and it’s a woman—you’re going to prioritize Title IX more.”
As for her own experience with Title IX, Kaplowitz says she is thankful that the legislation was there to both back her and empower her.
“I’m grateful that Title IX gave me the opportunity to participate and the opportunity to do this work,” she says. “It was the catalyst to create the Rutgers Center for Women in Business. It has had a profound impact on my life and on other women athletes. There’s still a long way to go to truly reach equality and equity, both in athletics and outside, but I’m grateful for the progress that we’ve made.”