Girls need not apply

Have you tried to find a male nurse's aide or child-care worker lately? How about a female plumber or electrician? Don't bother. Thirty years after Title IX, the federal law barring discrimination in education, the gender track that leads from vocational schools to the working world still has one train for young men and another for young women. At the end of the line, boys land well-paid jobs and girls get curlers and diapers.

When it comes to vocational education, Title IX has failed big time, and the blame stretches from school guidance offices right up to the US Department of Education.

It's true that Title IX, which applies to all aspects of education, has brought tremendous changes for women in high school and college sports. Since the law passed in 1972, the number of women involved in college athletics has increased by a factor of five. Over the same period, the number of high school girls playing sports has gone from 300,000 to more than 2.78 million. Schools that still lag behind are under pressure to bring full equity in sports funding, recruitment, and equipment.

But the focus on Title IX successes for women athletes has obscured the lack of progress in leveling the vocational education playing field. Voc-ed programs, a recent report by the National Women's Law Center shows, are stuck in a time warp that effectively channels women away from higher-paying careers.

In the 12 states the law center studied, about 90 percent of the students studying to be cosmetologists, child-care workers, and healthcare aides are female. Guess who's swinging tools? More than 90 percent of the students enrolled in carpentry, welding, electrical, automotive, and plumbing classes are male.

The numbers in some states are even worse. In Florida, every plumbing student is a boy, and 99 percent of cosmetology students are girls. Nearly every student in welding classes in Michigan is a boy. Ditto for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration in Mississippi and electrician classes in Missouri.

Critics say the numbers simply reflect individual choices. Everybody knows that boys like to build and repair things. Isn't it common knowledge that girls prefer wielding eyebrow pencils and thermometers?

That kind of thinking leaves out an important ingredient in the shaping of young people's choices – adults. It's hard to make good choices in the face of bad information, discrimination, and sexual harassment, but that's just what girls today are facing.

The separate and unequal treatment of students training for nonprofessional jobs starts in the guidance office. Girls are encouraged to go where girls have always gone, into training that dead-ends in low-paying jobs. Promotional materials fail to show women in nontraditional jobs, and female students aren't told about how much more lucrative the traditionally male careers can be.

Instead, girls are steered clear of the boys' turf. In Los Angeles, the law center study found that girls were directed to cosmetology because counselors had lower expectations for them. In Massachusetts, girls were lured away from the trades with the excuse that they would be taking a spot from a boy. And in a New York City school for mechanical trades that is 83 percent male, a sign over the recruiting table read, "Builds Mechanical Men." It might as well have said, "No Girls Need Apply."

When girls do succeed in getting into traditionally male voc-ed programs, they often face unequal treatment and sexual harassment. The law center study found that some voc-ed teachers hand girls the attendance book and give boys the tools. In Michigan, girls aren't allowed to operate equipment without a male student supervising. When it comes to summer vacation, boys are helped in finding jobs and girls are left behind.

But if those girls received the same treatment as male students – if they and others could cross the divide that keeps girls out of the training for skilled trades – the economic change for women would be enormous. Cosmetologists earn about $8.49 an hour, and child-care workers about $7.43, but plumbers, electricians, or mechanical drafters earn at least twice as much.

The National Women's Law Center has demanded that the Department of Education conduct extensive reviews in the 12 states detailed in the report. They want the department to look at recruitment, counseling, admissions, sexual harassment, and sex segregation, and push states to fix the problems.

If they succeed, you may find a man helping to care for your ailing and elderly parents, a woman plumber fixing that leak in the toilet, and a closing of the gap that has kept women's wages persistently lagging behind those of men.

• Robin Gerber, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership, is the author of 'Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way: Timeless Strategies From the First Lady of Courage,' (Penguin/Putnam) forthcoming this fall.

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