Separation is Not the Answer: Getting Girls Interested in STEM Subjects

Last August, New York City mayoral potential Christine Quinn announced a plan to open five all-girls tech-based middle schools. She addressed the gender gap in areas like engineering and computer science when explaining her reasoning on Women’s Equality Day. Under her plan, each of the five New York City boroughs would open a STEM-based school designed to influence girls at a key point in their development.

By providing a special spot for young women, Quinn and plan supporters believe many of the perceived social and academic barriers that prevent girls from pursuing STEM subjects will be eliminated, leading to a better balanced workforce down the road.

Quinn’s plan is built on facts. Over twice as many boys in high school take computer science advanced placement tests than girls every year. It is not uncommon for the boys at STEM high schools to outnumber the girls by three to one. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the job outlook in STEM fields is expected to grow at double the rate of other fields. The jobs of today, and the future, are in science, technology, engineering and math. Girls need the encouragement to seek out these career paths that may not seem appealing in the socially-centric middle school years. By building schools just for girls, though, would educators be sending the wrong message?

Quinn unveiled her plan on a day that shines a spotlight on the sad state of the workplace when it comes to gender. Say what you will about shattered glass ceilings, and women moving up the ranks with no boundaries, but in truth women still only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. The passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is intended to close this wage gap but I’m not convinced that any federal regulations can truly fix the problem. In a capitalist nation, it is not the government that determines the earnings of the workforce; the workforce itself does.

If three times the amount of high school boys are seeking advanced placement credits in subjects that will be in high demand in the workforce of the future, doesn’t it make sense that those males will earn more on the job? My guess is that candidate Quinn would argue that is the exact reason she has made this proposal – to give young women a better shot at being prepared for the jobs that are going to be available, and pay well, when they reach adulthood.

I’m not completely sure that singling out girls in this fashion will encourage them to chase down STEM-learning – not because this is a bad idea, but because middle school is too late. The road to cultural change when it comes to women and STEM subjects has to start long before the preteen years to be effective. From preschool, boys and girls need more encouragement in STEM areas. If both genders are treated equally from the start, and held to the same standards, there will be no need for gender-specific schools as they get older.

It won’t be a big deal if girls want to sit beside the boys in the advanced placement classes because it is normal behavior – just like coloring in Kindergarten or taking spelling tests in third grade. The stigma against girls and tech-learning runs much deeper than Quinn’s plan can fix.

Any attention the topic can receive, though, is a good thing. Quinn’s intentions are right but the timing is off. Perhaps her ideas will fan the embers of girl-based tech-learning and get many others fired up for the cause.

What do you think holds young women back from the pursuit of STEM subjects?


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