Expanding Opportunity for Women

This Women’s History Month, we at the Department of Education celebrate the progress America has made toward reaching the goal of gender equity while recognizing that there is still a ways to go before women and girls have equal access to a quality, affordable education, from cradle to career.

All of the Obama Administration’s initiatives to expand educational access and boost achievement benefit girls and women, starting with our earliest learners. Through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, the administration has invested nearly $1 billion to bolster state early learning programs. And President Obama’s groundbreaking 2013 Preschool for All proposal would enable states to provide an additional one million four-year-olds with high-quality preschool.

The benefits of high-quality early learning for young children are clear – and their mothers and families benefit too. Child care expenses for families with working mothers range from 20 percent to nearly 50 percent of a working mom’s salary. And that steep price tag leads too many mothers to put off pursuing their own educational and career goals.

President Obama understands what it is like for families where parents struggle to care for young children, earn a living, and pursue their own education. He was raised by a single mother who struggled to balance her own education with her family responsibilities. President Obama wants every child to have the opportunity for a strong start in school, and every parent to have the opportunity to responsibly balance careers, home life, and finances.

In elementary and secondary education, the Obama Administration has supported the state-led effort to set higher college and career-ready expectations for all students. We have invested billions of dollars to help struggling schools improve, to prepare and support great teachers and school leaders, to expand innovation, and to increase science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities for all students--including, especially, girls and women.

My 12-year old daughter had the good fortune to get off to a terrific start in science at her neighborhood elementary school, which has a special science focus. She did hands-on experiments, like building a headlamp from scratch and even got to electrocute a pickle! I am determined to see that she and every other girl gets opportunities like these to explore and excel in STEM subjects.

In higher education, the Obama Administration expanded the number of Pell Grant scholarships by about 50 percent during the President’s first term. We put an additional $40 billion into Pell Grants, without going back to taxpayers for a nickel. And of the roughly nine million students who have received Pell Grants since the President took office, 57 percent of them, or 5.1 million, are women.

At the same time, the Obama administration has vigorously enforced civil rights laws. We have taken new steps to stop sex discrimination in educational settings, to ensure equitable access for women to STEM courses and career training, to reduce sexual assaults on campus, and to protect the rights of pregnant and parenting students.

In April 2011, our department’s Office for Civil Rights released the first-ever guidance on how colleges must respond to sexual assault complaints to comply with Title IX civil rights law. Since then, more than 50 universities and colleges have revised policies to set the expectation for a community-wide campus culture of prevention, safety, and support for survivors.

In addition, investigations by our Office for Civil Rights have prompted numerous universities to make far-reaching agreements with the Department to reform their sexual-assault policies.

For example, the State University of New York system recently reached a comprehensive agreement with the department to improve campus climates and reopen investigations into past complaints of sexual harassment and violence. That landmark agreement covers all 219,000 students at 29 SUNY campuses.

Today, far too many women still suffer from sexual violence. And far too many women still lack equal opportunities in STEM careers and corporate boardrooms.

But we are making important progress. Because of Title IX, my sister had opportunities my mother never had, including the chance to play on her Division I college basketball team.

I believe my daughter will have opportunities that my sister never had. And when my 12-year old daughter and 10-year old son have the same opportunity to learn and explore their passions throughout their lives, I’ll know that we, as a nation, have taken that last big step toward fulfilling the American commitment to equal opportunity.

Click here for a fuller list of accomplishment by the Department of Education.

Arne Duncan is the Secretary of the Department of Education. 

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