Coding camps for girls. Scholarships for women only. Grants for female faculty. Mentorships for women and “femme-identified” undergrads.
Such same-sex exclusive perks are a staple of academia’s mission to achieve an equitable society. Some colleges go further and offer women’s only hours at the campus gym, weight room and swimming pool.
Created to counter sexual harassment and discrimination, these programs are now being reviewed by the Trump administration’s Department of Education. The federal department’s Office for Civil Rights has opened more than 90 investigations of the programs to date, in all 12 of the office’s regional branches nationwide, and the total grows nearly every week as complaints are reviewed and accepted for investigation.
The complaints started off as a trickle, lodged mostly by men who found the programs offensive, and have come fast and furious in the past few years. Nearly 300 complaints now await resolution.
The charges of anti-male discrimination may soon balloon as advocates expand their campaign to K-12 schools that receive federal funding and are subject to federal regulatory compliance and Title IX oversight. In April, the Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation against New York City’s Department of Education, based on a Title IX complaint that public schools are hosting single-sex Girls Who Code after-school camps. One advocate predicts this could lead to hundreds more complaints against public school districts.
“It’s now a new era of civil rights for all, and not the past practice of civil rights for some,” said Mark J. Perry, a University of Michigan professor of finance and business economics who has filed 129 complaints against universities since 2016. He said female success in academia is so “overwhelming” that the notion that women face disadvantages is “outdated.”
Defenders contend that bias persists despite such arguments, likening them to attacks on affirmative action as a form of reverse discrimination.
“Let’s look at the reality: We still have these persistent challenges in our society, so let’s make it easier for women to access and thrive in STEM or other areas,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, referring to the common acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
The allegations of anti-male bias in education touch on conflicting understandings of fairness, and raise the question of whether policies used to redress discrimination come with an expiration date. They also raise a more fundamental point that goes beyond the regulatory definition of discrimination: To what extent are disparities between men and women shaped by society or by genetics? And at what point do well-intended social policies become rigid social agendas?
In a legal strategy some see as ironic and others consider cynical, the complaints are based on the federal Title IX anti-discrimination law enacted in 1972 to give women a fair shake.
Perry, a self-described libertarian and an American Enterprise Institute scholar, is occasionally tipped off by professors and others about female-only programs at their institutions. He wasn’t the first to allege anti-male discrimination when he lodged his first objection in 2016 before Donald Trump’s election – against a women-only lounge at Michigan State University – but he escalated the allegations to a systematic nationwide campaign.
He said the same issues are playing out in the private sector, with many companies favoring employees by gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, along with a diversity push to boost women in technology that some quietly resent. “What starts in higher education often filters out or metastasizes in corporate America,” Perry said.
And Perry is comfortable using the language of social justice activists to describe his motivations and to impugn the motives of his critics.
“Women’s groups and feminists are clinging to their special preferences as a way to maintain power and privilege, and a disproportionate share of campus resources,” Perry said.
While women’s rights advocates say such single-sex programs are necessary to counter discrimination women face on campus, the Department of Education has stated they are illegal unless the university provides equivalent opportunities for men.
Women were once grievously underrepresented in universities, but since the early 1980s they have accounted for most undergraduate degrees, according to federal data. The projection for this year’s graduates is that women will represent 57.4% of bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of master’s degrees and 53.8% of doctorates. Those projections are expected to remain stable for the next decade.
But despite years of efforts, women account for only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science and 22.2% of bachelor’s in engineering. Much of the disagreement over the Title IX complaints relates to these two STEM disciplines, where the disparity is so lopsided it is reminiscent of universities a century ago.
In response to the Title IX complaints, several dozen universities have voluntarily opened their single-sex programs to males or created parallel programs just for men.
For example, Eastern Michigan University last November supplemented a Digital Divas computer camp for middle school and high school girls with a Digital Dudes camp for boys. Institutions that agreed to open up programs to males include Grand Valley State University with its Science Technology & Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) Camp for Girls, the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Girls in Engineering and Science Camp (GEMS) and the WISE Summer Camp at Clemson University, which has been operating more than 20 years.
Tulane University even agreed to provide remedial training to campus administrators who oversee financial aid and other programs, to teach them that Title IX prohibits all sex discrimination, “including discrimination against men,” according to the 2018 agreement between Tulane and Office for Civil Rights. That concession was part of Tulane’s agreement to alter 16 women-only fellowships, grants, mentorships and other programs.
At the same time, some universities are “aggressively challenging” the complaints, said Phil Catanzano, a who worked as an OCR lawyer in Boston for a decade until 2015 and now represents about a dozen universities that have been accused of anti-male discrimination. Catanzano, who would not disclose which universities he represents, said at least some of the programs can be saved by arguing they are necessary to counter discrimination, and by demonstrating they don’t limit opportunities for male students and faculty. A number of the computer camps are hosted on university campuses but attended by middle and high school girls.
“This is the best and most direct way to provide equal participation, an open door. It’s one of those things where, if you build it, they’ll come,” Catanzano said. “If you don’t provide opportunities at a younger age for girls because you’re relying on some stereotype, and then you complain they don’t perform as well when we assess them in middle school, high school and college, you’re kind-of cooking the books to start with.”
Race-based affirmative action likewise faced legal challenges and advocates were able to maintain the policy by reframing it as a way of fostering diversity and inclusivity, rather than a system of institutionalizing racial preferences.
Exactly how many of these single-sex programs exist is anybody’s guess, but it could well be in the thousands. A number of the Title IX complaints allege that universities offer dozens of such programs, and some institutions have 50 or more.
“It’s just a stunning inequity of these scholarships,” said E. Everett Bartlett, president of SAVE, which stands for Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. To date, the Rockville, Md.-based organization has filed 164 Title IX complaints since 2019 that have resulted in more than 100 federal investigations.
“People are being harmed,” Bartlett said. “Every student is trying to pay for college tuition without going into debt. And you’re saying to a large portion of the student body: You don’t qualify so there’s no need for you to apply.”
The SAVE Title IX Equity Project complaints focus on single-sex scholarships that benefit women, but as part of its efforts, the organization has filed complaints against several universities’ male-only scholarships, too. SAVE has challenged eight scholarships at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, that it says are for minority men or with a preference given to minority males.
In March, SAVE issued an analysis of 319 universities in all 50 states that found that at 85 institutions female scholarships outnumbered male scholarships by 10 or more.
Perry said hundreds of K-12 school districts could be violating Title IX, based on the fact that the nonprofit Girls Who Code organization’s web site states that it operates 8,500 programs worldwide. The organization says in its annual report it has served more than 90,000 girls in all 50 states in this country, and its signature program is open to girls from the third through 12th grade. Girls Who Code programs are hosted in public schools and at universities.
“Universities are for the first time being challenged for violating Title IX by offering single sex programs/scholarships, as they continue to live in the past, as if we’re still in the 1960s or 1970s, by pretending that women are handicapped and disadvantaged,” Perry said in an email. “Now that those programs and scholarships are being challenged for the first time, universities have a 100% record of losing.”
A Department of Education spokeswoman who provided information on the condition of anonymity explained by email that the department’s Title IX regulations do not permit the creation of academic programs or financial assistance to members of only one sex.
But there are exceptions, such as cases where “the same opportunities are available for members of the excluded sex.”
For example, university donors can use a will or trust to set up a scholarship that’s restricted by gender “so long as the overall effect of the award does not discriminate on the basis of sex.”
Title IX allows for single-sex private universities, like women’s colleges, and facilities, such as residence halls.
Still, for women’s rights advocates, the flurry of Title IX complaints and the favorable reception at the Department of Education signifies a dangerous trend that threatens to undo years of gains women have made in academe.
Pasquerella said women face “persistent structural barriers,” particularly in STEM fields like engineering and computer programming, where they still represent about 1 in 5 undergraduate degrees.
“There are not just subtle but overt pressures for women not to participate,” Pasquerella said. “Women and girls don’t have a sense of belonging in STEM. One way to address that is by creating communities where people can come together and say, ‘Yes I do deserve a place in STEM disciplines in the academy in other areas where women have been traditionally marginalized or excluded.’”
Feminists don’t agree on every point regarding gender disparities. Pasquerella, for example, is not troubled by the lopsided overrepresentation of women in nursing, she said, because there is no evidence men face stigma or discrimination in that field.
Erin Buzuvis, a professor at the Western New England University School of Law and a Title IX expert, said that “occupational segregation” in nursing and other fields where women predominate is a social problem and should be corrected.
“As long as you agree that the environment is shaping our choices, then why would we pick something less than equal as our goal?” she said.
Adriana Kugler, a professor of Public Policy and Economics at Georgetown University who dismissed Perry as misinformed and driven by an agenda, has found that discrimination is difficult to isolate as the decisive factor for low female degrees and jobs in STEM fields, but said implicit bias and stereotyping are real problems. A paper she co-authored for publication this year — “Choice of Majors: Are Women Really Different From Men?” — reports that girls respond to a variety of influences and are more likely than boys to change majors when they get poor grades in STEM classes. Ironically, female-only programs may diminish their interest and confidence.
“The numerous government and other policy initiatives designed to get women interested in STEM ﬁelds may have the unintended eﬀect of signaling to women an inherent lack of ﬁt,” the paper states.
Invoking discrimination as a defense of single-sex initiatives is no longer the slam-dunk argument it once was, some say. Brett Sokolow, president of ATIXA, the Association of Title IX Administrators, said that Title IX has historically allowed for affirmative action exceptions, but they are increasingly harder to justify.
“Mark’s primary thesis is the historical justification for single sex programs doesn’t exist anymore,” Sokolow said. “I think that basic premise is basically true for most schools and most programs.”
In cases where it’s not true, Sokolow said, many universities are ill-equipped to mount a defense.
“They’re not making the effort to. They’re just assuming that there’s a historical exclusion,” he said. “For most of these schools, they aren’t going to jump through those hoops of doing all that data collection and assessment to save one program.”
Still, some institutions are fighting back. A common defense is that programs advertised as female-only don’t exclude men.
The Ohio State University made that argument to the Office for Civil Rights in January in response to a complaint by Perry.
“When the College states that ‘We serve all female students,’ it is not to the exclusion of men, but to be inclusive of all females including minoritized women – women of color, LGBTQ women, and women who are first generation,” OSU said in a letter to the OCR. “The intent is to address the historical and current marginalized and underrepresented groups in engineering as well as foster the success of students anywhere on the gender spectrum.”
Ohio State University agreed to open seven women’s programs to “all genders and gender identities.” It said it is reviewing one female-specific program to see if it needs to be changed or if it can be kept as is, said OSU’s letter written by Title IX Coordinator Kellie Brennan.
Perry said such responses are disingenuous because men are not likely to apply to a program designated for women.
University of California, Berkeley, spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said its Girls in Engineering summer camp for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students “is open to all genders.”
The university has since clarified the program’s web site and handouts to explicitly state that openness, in response to Perry’s complaint, Gilmore said. But Berkeley is proposing to the Office for Civil Rights to allow the College of Engineering not to change the name of the program “because doing so would likely result in a disproportionately low number of girls in the program.”
Gilmore said she did not know how many boys were among the roughly 350 students who have attended the camp the last three summers because UC Berkeley doesn’t track the gender of participants as part of its effort to “to avoid making any gender assumptions based on how someone presents themselves.”
At the University of Michigan, Perry is challenging 53 different programs and scholarships. Many are designed to address STEM enrollment disparities, but not all. Among the Michigan programs Perry is challenging: the Michigan Business Women BBA and MBA Programs at the Ross School of Business; the Center for the Education of Women Scholarship Program; three Sarah Goddard Power awards for “recognizing the status of women within the University of Michigan”; and the Commission for Women at the Dearborn campus that works on “providing an advocacy role in issues of concern to women employees of the campus” and “promoting women’s professional opportunities and toward providing opportunities for women’s personal growth.”
In his Title IX complaint, Perry said such programs suggest totalitarian impulses.
“This effect is akin to a German campus rejecting Jewish applicants in excess of the maximum quota or state-sanctioned hate speech against non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia or an Asian-majority firm discriminating against a white employee or indeed, the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine struck down in Brown v. the Board of Education.”
Perry filed the Title IX complaint in 2018 and OCR opened an investigation in January 2019, nearly a year and a half ago, as the University of Michigan continues negotiating. A UM spokesman said the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Perry said he became interested in disparities against males during the Great Recession when he noticed that men were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn. Men tended to work in hard-hit industries like construction, manufacturing and finance, whereas women were shielded from the worst effects because they were concentrated in fields like education and public health.
He filed his first Title IX challenge in 2016 over the women-only lounge at Michigan State University after he read about it in a college newspaper. He complained to MSU’s Title IX officer and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Then he leaked the story to journalists and it got picked up by the Washington Post. That summer the university renovated the lounge, which dated back to the 1920s, and reopened it for all genders that fall.
MSU spokesman Dan Olsen said by email that the lounge was converted to a study area to comply with Title IX, but not in response to anyone’s complaint.
The change was not popular on campus among students who organized to restore the lounge to its former status, Perry recalled.
“They went ballistic. There were sit-ins, protests,” he said. “That generated tons of hate mail.”
This article was originally published in RealClearInvestigations.