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All-Girls Schools Are Not a Silver Bullet to Getting More Women in Science & Engineering

All-Girls Schools Are Not a Silver Bullet to Getting More Women in Science & Engineering

Last weeks’ Washington Post profile of an all-girls school and their emphasis on engineering sparked the ongoing debate if this is the answer for increasing the number of girls majoring in engineering in college. Get the boys away from the girls and viola! Instant girl scientists. I really wish it was that easy. The problem is complex and thus the solution is equally complex.

Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, said it best in the article:

“The real challenges for reaching out to young women is to get over the stereotype that this isn’t something girls do and then to help them build their confidence.”

I wish I could find the link, but a few years ago a man wrote an op-ed about why he thought women left graduate school in the sciences, despite being intelligent enough to handle science. His answer? That science is presented as a field where there are answers, rock solid, X = 125, C answers. That is until you get to graduate school and you are investigating a question where there is no answer.

But early on, focus is on the answer not the method or the route to the answer. This is where our energies need to go, not continuing the debate if single-sex schools are the solution. Girls and boys do indeed learn differently, but the difference between any two boys is usually far greater than any girl and boy. And as the achievement gap between boys and girls continues to close, the comparison gap within genders will increase. The AAUW has documented the challenges our children may face in single-sex schools.

I do believe that there are valid reasons for parents to choose to send their children to single-sex schools, but I don’t want anyone to believe that this will turn your daughter into the next Nobel Prize winner. In fact, you telling them that they can do it, that girls do math, that boys do read, will go much farther than single-sex education ever can.

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49 comments

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6:33AM PDT on Aug 13, 2010

I think effective teaching and counseling would be much more helpful.

5:21PM PDT on Aug 12, 2010

I was in both types of schools. I have to say the all girls school I attended was very pro-education for women and really helped us to achieve better in life. i totally was awed by this school, however as a young student up to high school the teachers kept telling my parents that math was not critical for me in school because of my gender!!
I was sold into the belief and so were my parents that it really did not matter if I was good at math or not that I would either wind up married or in some teaching career (which does require some math).
The point is that women learn math differently and there are programs to help girls who are bad at math by spacial recognition. i have heared it works well and is fast. Once you get it you get it.
I hope the teachers of today are at least encouraging their female students to take this fast course to get a hold of math early because many if not most of the higher paying jobs require math.

11:12AM PDT on Aug 12, 2010

I think an environment with both sexes helps to prepare the girls better than an all-girls environment. Especially since the scientific world is predominantly male. Without having had to deal with men at my high school, I probably wouldn't be able to survive college. I'm going to study physics, a nine out of ten male study. Wish me luck!

9:57AM PDT on Aug 11, 2010

I think that separating the boys from the girls does not allow them to interact enough to be able to handle male-female situations in life. Experience not insulation is the key to learning.
As far as academics is concerned one must have an interest in the subject. This is an individual predelection. One cannot force either sex to do what one is not interested in doing. Further to assume that boys are naturally mechanically inclined and that girls are born knowing how to cook is just plain ridiculous. All must be learned.
We need to expose our children to a vast array of experiences so that when they choose their careers they may select the best fit for themselves.

4:45PM PDT on Jun 25, 2010

Catrina says: "and they can't even have a proper woodworking shop, or even an apprentice auto repair shop in there? You don't get the engineering bug from books and tiddlywinks, you get it from using your hands. ASK THE BOYS!!"

What boys? In case you haven't noticed, the younger generations of American boys aren't engineers, and aren't very interested in either woodworking or auto mechanics either. Most public schools have removed all this stuff from their curriculum, so that they can concentrate on producing more office-worker drones. Most 15-25 year old boys wouldn't know a torque wrench if it hit them in the head, and would much rather pursue a career as a barista than an auto mechanic.

4:41PM PDT on Jun 25, 2010

Why are you trying to ruin the lives of women with this article? Why would you want women to become scientists? Science is a horrible, horrible career in the USA. Stop lying to girls and tell them the truth: as a scientist, you'll need 8+ years of school so that you can get a job paying $20k at a lab preparing samples for 80 hours/week, and that's if you're lucky enough to find a job. A job as a scientist won't even pay for your student loans.

If a girl really wants a technical career, guide her into engineering. At least engineers get decent pay and there's a better job market for them. But be prepared for a miserable work experience. Trust me, it's nowhere near as fun as it seems in school.

10:11AM PDT on Jun 25, 2010

I recently read the catalog of an exclusive, Washington DC area private girls school that is trying to induce its girls to become interested in engineering. In all seriousness, they had those girls building bridge models out of POPSICLE STICKS. Summer camp fare!I couldn't believe it; that school charges $30,000 a year for tuition (A large percentage are there on scholarships) and they can't even have a proper woodworking shop, or even an apprentice auto repair shop in there? You don't get the engineering bug from books and tiddlywinks, you get it from using your hands. ASK THE BOYS!!

8:55PM PST on Mar 10, 2010

I attended an all girls high school for 2 years, then we amalgamated with the boys. I have to say that there was definitely a more competitive environment when there were just girls. We were still competitive when we joined the boys, but less so. The boys were much less competitive (scholastically) when the girls arrived ! This trait tends to even out once one goes to university.

6:31AM PST on Feb 11, 2010

I just hate that Lawrence Sommers is in our government now after he made such stupid remarks about women having not much ability in science and math. He lost his job as pres of Harvard over it, and now works for the USA! Crazy.

8:35PM PST on Jan 22, 2010

Interesting article; thank you, Veronica.

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