Title IX regulations enabled women to successfully pursue careers traditionally reserved for men at institutions like NASA, astronaut Mary Cleave said at an event Friday.
The Georgetown University Astronomical Society and the science, technology and international affairs program hosted the event as part of the Heyden Distinguished Lecture Series, named after Fr. Francis Heyden, S.J., who headed Georgetown’s astronomy department from 1945 to 1972.
Cleave was the only female astronaut on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis Mission in 1985, which deployed communications satellites, and in 1989, which deployed a probe to map the surface of Venus. Before her time at NASA, Cleave studied and worked as an environmental engineer, giving her the background to aid with research while on her missions.
Cleave was interested in aviation from a young age but, because she was unable to fly for the military, became an airline stewardess. When she failed to meet the height requirement for the job, she applied to graduate school and eventually made it to NASA.
Her success was largely because of the enactment of the Title IX regulations, according to Cleave.
“Title IX passed, and within 10 years I was getting hired to work in a space shuttle, and I couldn’t even get hired as an airline stewardess 10 years earlier,” Cleave said in an interview with The Hoya. “Title IX blew the lid off of so many occupations for women. It made a huge difference.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 addressed sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The implementation of Title IX prohibited employment discrimination and addressed the gender disparity in access to career and technical education, which was especially prominent in the fields of math, science and technology, according to the American Association of University Women.
The enforcement of Title IX regulations not only opened up more career paths for women in STEM but also improved the workplace environment within these fields, according to Cleave.
“I found NASA to be way ahead of the university system,” Cleave said at the event. “In general, I think the federal government — because of Title IX and the fact that it’s a federal law — had to be really careful and I think they are.”
Women made up only 7 percent of the workforce in STEM occupations in 1970 and 14 percent in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Cleave said she experienced some uncomfortable encounters during graduate school because she studied in a male-dominated field.
“I did run into issues at graduate school,” Cleave said. “I don’t know of any females who went to graduate school who didn’t have little incidents that were less than pleasant.”
The change in regulations at the federal level demanded that Cleave’s male colleagues be respectful, according to Cleave.
“They had the ultimate motivator: If you screw up, you don’t go to space. Self-discipline is really motivating,” Cleave said. “You’ve spent so much time and energy to get your butt in a spacecraft, you’re not going to do anything to put that at risk.”
In 2015, women held 24 percent of STEM occupations and constituted 30 percent of undergraduate degree holders in all STEM fields, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Cleave encouraged women to pursue leadership roles and involvement in fields that interest them — even if men dominate those professions.
“Find the part of the science that you really enjoy and go for it,” Cleave said in an interview with The Hoya. “Pursue what interests you, not what people tell you to do.”
Following her interests in STEM despite the odds allowed her to live without regrets, according to Cleave.
“I’ve run into too many people who say, ‘I wish I’d done this; I wish I’d done that,’ and I think, ‘Man, am I lucky. I did everything that I wanted to,’” Cleave said.