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Many Americans can still remember when schools routinely barred girls from vocational education - fields like auto service, carpentry or plumbing. Those jobs were considered to be inappropriate for women. Forty years ago today, President Nixon signed into law Title IX, which said no one could be excluded from any education program or activity on the basis of sex.
The barriers came down slowly. But as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, it is still hard to find girls in courses that were once viewed as for boys only.
ZOE SHIPLEY: My name is Zoe Shipley, and I'm 15 years old.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Zoe Shipley has a passion for cars and tinkering with engines.
ZOE SHIPLEY: It's just kind of cool to learn how to fix a car, or learn about it.
SANCHEZ: Zoe is also the only girl in her automotive technology course. So she's been teased a lot.
ZOE SHIPLEY: They, like, call me a grease monkey. Yeah. I'm like, so what? At least I have the option to choose what I want to do, you know what I mean?
SANCHEZ: That's what Title IX did. It removed the policies and practices that kept female students from courses and programs once reserved for male students.
TOM EVANS: All of our electives here are totally open to all of our kids. We don't force any boys or girls to do anything.
SANCHEZ: Tom Evans is the principal at Eastern Technical High, a magnet school in Essex, Maryland. Students here can choose from 12 career majors, including construction, information technology, engineering - and Zoe's choice.
EVANS: We're about to enter our automotive technology program.
SANCHEZ: Evans unlocks the big, double doors that open to a cavernous garage. Six- and eight-cylinder car engines sit in the middle of the room, next to several cars and a row of computers that have been stored for the summer.
EVANS: Cars are all computer-based today.
SANCHEZ: Evans says if you think about it, this school is proof that Title IX accomplished what it set out to do in education. And yet, says Evans, Zoe is the exception, not the rule.
EVANS: I've seen Zoe in action, in her automotive class. I mean, she's not going to let anybody push her around academically, or intimidate her in any way, you know.
SANCHEZ: The same is true of the four girls in the school's construction management program that offers electrical and plumbing classes. That's it. In a school that's over half female, a total of five girls in two traditional male courses. Why? I ask Evans.
EVANS: I think some of the fields, just the nature of the work that kids see going on in those fields, isn't going to attract that many women, you know. Automotive technology isn't a field that you see women in.
SANCHEZ: That would quickly change if there was a demand for more female mechanics and plumbers, says Evans - like there is now, for female engineers.
EVANS: We make a serious attempt at getting girls into engineering. We recruit girls from all over the county, and that has paid off a little bit. But engineering, by itself, is a field where I think women are starting to see female engineers.
SANCHEZ: Zoe says that's why her family tried - and failed - to get her to switch from automotive technology to the engineering program.
ZOE SHIPLEY: But I think it would be cool if I owned my own shop, like a car shop.
ELAYNE DIGMAN: I can see her owning her own shop as a businesswoman, but I can't see her out working on a car.
SANCHEZ: That's Zoe's grandmother, Elayne Digman, one of those family members who just can't picture Zoe taking car engines apart, getting all greasy.
DIGMAN: I had, I don't know, just odd feelings about her going into this class because, you know, back in my day you didn't do stuff like that; going into trades that were basically, boys' trades.
SANCHEZ: Principal Evans says he hears this all the time. Some parents like that their daughters have choices - until they choose something they think is inappropriate for a young woman. Zoe hasn't let that get in her way, even though she now understands why her grandmother thinks the way she does. Mrs. Digman attended a vocational high school in Baltimore, in the early 1960s. She says girls' choices back then were truly limited.
DIGMAN: Part of the year, you had sewing classes; and part of the year, you had cooking classes. I wouldn't have been allowed to take classes that boys took.
SANCHEZ: That's so unfair, says Zoe, her eyes locked on her grandmother.
ZOE SHIPLEY: I think it deprived her, 'cause it's discrimination.
SANCHEZ: Forty years after Title IX became law, schools, for the most part, don't discriminate - or deny girls educational opportunities. And yet, here's what a study by the National Women's Law Center concluded a few years ago. Boys are still routinely steered toward courses that lead to higher-paying careers in technology and trades, while 90 percent of students in courses that lead to lower-wage jobs, like child care and cosmetology, are female.
FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: You know, this issue is so important because of the financial consequences. So schools really have an obligation to take extra steps here.
SANCHEZ: Fatima Goss Graves is with the National Women's Law Center.
GRAVES: And in a down economy, people may be feeling like there is more at stake. Not having access to high-wage programs, experiencing harassment in school, you may take that extra step and file a complaint. And it may be a step that you wouldn't have taken a few years ago.
SANCHEZ: With so much at stake, says Graves, enforcing Title IX today is no less urgent than it was 40 years ago.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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