Saturday, June 23, marked 40 years since the United States enacted a law requiring publicly funded schools to provide similar opportunities to all students, regardless of sex. It's an anniversary worth celebrating.
Title IX, as the legislation is known, has improved the lives of women more dramatically than even its most ardent supporters could have imagined. In particular, the most controversial provision -- giving girls similar sporting opportunities to boys -- has highlighted how extracurricular activities such as sports can shape who we become as adults.
Most debate about Title IX has focused on the high-profile, big-spending world of college athletics. Such arguments miss the point of Title IX, which is to create equality in our school system, and misconstrue its true legacy -- enabling mass sports participation for girls long before college.
There are almost 15 times as many high-school intermural athletes as in college. Before the law, almost all those athletes were male. Only about 1 in 20 girls was an athlete. By the time the law took effect -- a process that dragged on for six years as Congress fought about whether to exclude sports -- almost 3 in 10 girls were playing. Girls' participation then remained roughly stable until it rose again in the 1990s when enforcement of the law increased.
Critics often claim that these new opportunities for girls came at the expense of boys. Yet the data don't bear out that claim. About half of high school boys participate in sports, and this rate has been roughly steady for the past four decades.
Boys' wrestling programs are often portrayed as victims of Title IX. True, they have declined since the law was introduced. The motivating factor, though, is soccer, which has grown enormously in the decades since Title IX was passed and quickly replaced wrestling as a popular sport for boys throughout the country. Overall, more male high school sports programs expanded than shrank after Title IX. Tennis, cross-country and golf have all grown substantially.
Boys may not have suffered, but what did girls gain? The law's legacy goes far beyond having fun on the playing field. High school athletics confer substantial economic benefits that last throughout participants' lives. When one compares people with similar educational opportunities, family backgrounds, measures of intelligence and self-esteem, the annual wages of former athletes are, on average, 7 percent higher than nonathletes. Similarly, athletes get almost half a year more education than nonathletes. The gains occur equally for girls and boys.
Sports develop and reward a lot of skills that are valued in the workplace: discipline, good-natured competition, teamwork, ability to engage with adults and a diverse set of peers. Skeptics, though, will note that correlation is not causation. It's possible that whatever makes people become athletes also makes them more successful in life, whether or not they ever set foot on a playing field.
Unfortunately, we haven't outgrown Title IX. Fewer than half of all athletes are girls, and the gap is larger in states where support for the law is weakest and sexist attitudes are most prevalent. Not surprisingly, these are also the states with greater gender disparities in the classroom, with boys doing better in math and science.
It's in all our best interests to keep narrowing the gap. When we deny the benefits of sports to our children, of either sex, we limit their ability to enjoy success not only on the sporting field, but also in the marketplace as adults.
Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, are Bloomberg View columnists.