More than forty years ago, “Title Nine” (Title IX) became law, prohibiting discrimination in education based on sex. The profound improvements in gender equity that followed in the American education system are now taken for granted. It may not even occur to you to consider this issue when evaluating a private school. Don’t make that mistake. Unless a private school receives federal funding, it is not required by law to comply with Title IX. This post reviews some relevant sex discrimination laws, what we know about gender and education, some typical observations of gender bias in local private schools, and how to check out potential schools for your children. 
Sex Discrimination Law and Education
Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 says that “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.” This path-breaking legislation ushered in monumental changes for all students, but particularly female students in areas such as math and science education, participation in sports, sexual harassment and more. 
Whereas Title IX uniformly raised the standards for gender equality involving public education, it did not do the same for private education because schools without federal support are not required to adhere to this law for equal treatment of students. Even after 40 years, some private schools remain shockingly behind the times. The truth is that if your private school does not receive federal funding, it is not required to treat male and female students equally.
States laws differ widely across the country. Some states have passed laws that extend Title IX to educational institutions not receiving federal funding as well. Maryland, for example, is not included in this group. The Maryland State (COMAR) regulation covering private school discrimination, found here, prohibits discrimination “based upon race, color, or national origin.” Sex and gender is notably missing from the regulations.
Gender Roles in School
Another result of Title IX was an increase in thorough sociological and psychological examinations of issues that impact women in education. Myra and David Sadker, for example, led research which undeniably demonstrated that gender bias in favor of boys widely exists in U.S. classrooms, indicating that fair and equal education for girls is far from common. The Sadker’s research also demonstrated that teachers tend to reinforce stereotypes of girls as quiet and subservient, often relegating them to a lower position in the classroom. A more recent study by the American Association of University Women found that sexual harassment is extraordinarily widespread in American schools, including for boys. Their work suggests that 81 percent of all students experience some form of sexual harassment during their school lives. About half of these students say that the harassment comes from teachers. Most of these students, sadly, believe that facing this type of harassment is just part of school life and they are powerless to change it. 
Observations about Local Private Schools
Here are a few observations I have collected from students, parents, local activist and educational groups:
- One local private school proudly boasts of the success of its team for a Jeopardy-style academic trivia quiz game. From its inception, teachers and parents alike have pointed out that the female student population in the school is not represented on this popular team. In fact, online pictures of events and championship teams show that it is primarily an all boys activity.
- In one local private school, over a period of 3 years, girls were gradually removed from the accelerated math group in the lower school. Girls went from being strong, respected math students to the bottom of the lower math group. When parents complained or asked for help, they were told there was a strong group of demanding boys that needed attention or they were told math the program was being changed.
- In one local private school a culminating unit project divided students by sex and had boys constructing architectural models and girls making life size clothing out of construction paper and yarn.
- In one local private school a male elementary teacher regularly referred to young girls as “bossy,” “quiet,” and “flirty.” Meanwhile he praised athletically-minded boys at recess during football games and mocked reserved, less competitive boys who preferred quieter endeavors. The school ignored parent complaints.
- In one local private school, a middle school coach told his male team member to stop “acting like a girl” when he played cautiously due to a broken bone. When parents protested, the school refused to reprimand the coach, who continued to ridicule the boy.
- In one local private school, a fancy dinner and a high profile community welcome was given for the new men’s soccer coach, but the arrival of a new women’s volleyball coach was simply acknowledged in passing at school meetings. Both these teams were banner winning varsity teams.
- In one local private school, a student was physically assaulted by a male student. When she reported the incident to the school and pressed for consequences, she was ultimately told by a male faculty member that she deserved it because she was being “bossy.”
These are all examples of unacceptable gender bias
Some of the affirming actions I have seen schools take with regard to gender include:
- A local private school that offered a class in women and family history that compared the U.S. experience with developing countries.
- A local school regularly uses gender-neutral ways to make class groups and call on students by using a random selection.
- A local private school has frank discussions about gender roles with students prior to the students choosing their government. Teachers use the selection process as an opportunity to teach equality.
Note that in some cases, a school that provides a hostile learning environment for girls and boys may also provide a hostile workplace environment for women and retaliate against the people who work to change that environment. Teachers in such private schools may well be victims themselves of gender discrimination. The refrain amongst veteran teachers I have heard so often is that they themselves feel a sense of powerlessness and are at a loss for how to change the learning environment for students for whom they care so deeply without losing their jobs.
Compounding the problem of institutional intransigence is the reception female teachers receive when they have the courage to speak out. Extensive research has shown that when women are assertive in the work environment, they are labeled as “unlikable,” “annoying,” or having bad “soft skills”. This “likability bias” exists in all realms of the workforce but can have an especially profound and damaging impact on any woman who advocates to have a gender neutral learning environment for their students in a private school. 
Checking out Private Schools for Gender Issues
A private school with a healthy educational environment should embrace the ethos of Title IX, despite the fact that it is not legally beholden to the law. So, be wary of private schools that promote arcane traditions at the expense of human dignity. Look for the answers to a few questions. Does the school community consider older or popular faculty members who violate social and civil protocol to be charming? Are new or midcareer faculty terminated when they push for frank examination of outdated gender roles? If these problems are ignored they will create a toxic situation that undermines the learning environment for your child. Approach your consideration of any private school with these things in mind.
That said, the answers to these deep questions will not be on display when you tour the school. You’ll need some more concrete ways to take the pulse of the school. Here are some suggestions of things to focus on that may serve as a barometer for gender equity:
- Athletics is an area that lends itself well to the purpose. If the school spends its resources on boys and girls athletic programming equally, that’s a good sign. Check if the boy’s teams and girl’s teams are portrayed in the same manner on the website and around the school. Are there signs the school celebrates the success of girls teams just as much as boys? When was the last time the girls’ teams got new uniforms and equipment? Are these items replaced on a fair and equitable basis for both sexes? Do the girls teams play on the school’s prime fields? Ask about the achievements of the school’s teams last season. If both the boy’s soccer team and the girl’s volleyball team won their championships last year, did they each get the same kind of celebration? How does the school hire coaches for these teams? How do they introduce new coaching staff to the community? Do both teams have opportunities for equal training time, including summer or off-season bonding time?
- Other extracurriculars are also good things to inquire about. Who is the editor of the school newspaper? Grab a copy of the school paper and count the number of bylines for boys and girls. How about plays and other performances? When you go to the arts center, check out the posters from previous plays—are there about as many female leads as male? Ask, “can girls be cast for parts that are written for boys?” Drama programs with a serious commitment to child development will happily cast a girl as Oliver, or a boy as Annie, for that matter.
- Ask about the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum. What steps does the school take to promote STEM to female students and foster their success in all grade levels? This is a critical issue and the school should have a very concrete and compelling answer. Remember math and science is a critical component of Title IX.
- When you go into classrooms with classes in session—especially P.E. classes—pay close attention to how teachers interact with the students. Ask how they ensure that girls are called on as often as boys and that their ideas are honored. This is basic teaching theory that stemmed from work of the Sadkers. Good teachers that are current in professional development have specific techniques for this and will be glad to talk about how they avoid gender-biased teaching.
- Finally, be aware that gender equity cannot be simply addressed with a school’s overall “diversity” program. Ask questions specific to sexual harassment, fostering strong female student leaders, training for teachers in gender-neutral instruction.
Recall the example above of the athlete who was harassed by his coach for “acting like a girl.” The AAUW Hostile Hallways report mentioned earlier found harassment like this happens all the time and it is probably too much to hope for a school without it. However, your private school search should end with a school that takes pride in meeting daily sexual harassment and gender discrimination problems head on. Pick a school that has a plan for resolving parent concerns about gender bias and sexual harassment that is transparent and acknowledges that it is a widespread problem to be systematically tackled using educational and counseling resources and not covertly swept under the rug.
In the example of the bullying coach, the school’s primary concern was to control the damage to the school’s image by squelching the story. There seemed to be little concern for the emotional welfare of the student involved, the integrity of the educational program or in making the ethics referred to in the school’s mission statement a reality. Leadership that takes a “Penn State Approach” by making the school’s image and public relations the top priority is a bad sign. Social pressure to keep silent about known societal problems that are likely to emerge in any community is insidious and not healthy for your child.
In contrast, leadership that calls on the school community to serve its educational mission with compassionate fortitude in the face of the inevitable occurrences of sexual harassment and gender bias is a good sign. A good private school empowers victims, reprimands perpetrators, and is committed to helping both become better community members. No single school can solve the massive problem of sexual harassment and gender bias in our society, but a good school is a vehicle for change by implementing meaningful equity programs, hiring knowledgeable faculty, and counseling parents, teachers, and administrators when incidents occur.
 For reference and resources, here are some examples. First, look at the Montgomery County Public Schools nondiscrimination page which provides the school system’s policy and explicitly references citizens’ Title IX rights, and directions for obtaining due process for complaints. Then, look at a sample of private school nondiscrimination policies: Maret, Georgetown Day School, Sandy Spring Friends School, Our Lady of Good Counsel, and Barrie School. These webpages do not reference broader state or federal legal code or provide a path to obtaining due process for gender discrimination complaints.
 See Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls and Still Failing at Fairness: How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It, by Myra and David Sadker. The AAUW report is here: Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School.
 Discussions on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network are a good entry point into this research. See these posts, for example: “For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand,” “