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All-Girl Schools: A Solution to Representation in STEM

Women now comprise a larger portion of college students than men, in part a reflection of their superior high-school grades. Yet, as one scales the academic ranks, one still finds that gender imbalances have yet to be corrected: only 33 percent of full-time professors are female. The numbers are even worse in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), with only 21 percent of professors female. There are several explanations for these discrepancies, including gender discrimination in faculty administrations. However, even at institutions which have fought hard to eliminate such injustices, gender imbalances persist, largely as a result of internalized and harmful biases. In school, many female students are made to believe that boys are better at math, leading to lower confidence, participation, and scores. While legislative and regulatory efforts are being made to do away with these pernicious causes of female underperformance, internalized biases require alternative solutions. One suggestion is all-girl education. Despite the fact that federal schools were required to be co-educational in order to protect women from discrimination, studies find that all-girl education may help to do away with many of these internalized biases and therefore propel more women into STEM.

The gross underrepresentation of women in academia is rooted in subtle yet systematic oppression, which begins with their socialization in the home. Girls are encouraged by their parents to remain silent and subservient, while boys are told to speak up. These subliminal rulings then manifest themselves in the classroom, where boys are found to talk nine times more than their female counterparts, often encouraged to do so. This results in higher participation amongst males than females, and in turn, boys are privileged with a better understanding of the test material. On the other hand, girls are socially programmed to believe that boys perform better, which discourages them from even taking part, meaning lower female test scores become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It then comes as no surprise that parents are nearly two times as likely to identify their sons as gifted than they are their daughters. This alludes to an inherent bias which favors boys and tells them that they are capable, but, more importantly, tells girls that they are not.

This bias is especially apparent when looking at how students perceive their own academic abilities: one study found that, among high-achieving students with similar mathematical aptitudes, boys had higher self-perception scores than girls, indicating that they were more confident in their math skills. Although boys are more likely than girls to achieve the highest scores on math tests, “differences in achievement were no longer apparent” between boys and girls when the statistics were adjusted for confidence and self-perception. It is evident that confidence plays a pivotal role in determining test scores, something that has been stripped away from girls as a result of internalized sexism.

With this internalized tripartite of sexism, underperformance, and low confidence in play, researchers sought out ways in which we could remove this impediment on female test scores. The results are rather clear: girls do significantly better with no boys around. A study conducted at Stanford assessed how the mathematical attainment of girls changed with the presence of boys, finding that as girls were asked to compete with each other rather than with males, both female performance and participation rates improved immensely. In fact, in the case where girls competed separately, the difference in male and female performance was virtually nonexistent.

From these findings, it can be understood that the differences in test scores arise due to how women interpret competition with men and the fact that social structures enable men to become significantly more confident than women. This outcome is the result of generations of gender-biased socialization and internal programming, a process which has led women to doubt their achievements. Yet it is clear that in an environment with a minimal male presence and where girls are strongly encouraged to participate–such as at all-girl academic institutions–many of the damages which slow down female progression in STEM can be undone, a claim that receives support upon comparing test scores of students in all-girl institutions with their co-educated counterparts. Girls educated in all-girl institutions are found to have a math performance level which is seven to ten percent higher than girls in standard co-educational institutions, a phenomenon which derives from increased confidence levels resulting from removing the biases which make women believe that they are less capable. There is no doubt that these findings have opened up a range of potential solutions to address the shortage of women in the highest levels of academia, particularly in STEM, and one must not forget the many other areas where we could see improvements in gender equality with an all-girl education system, such as political and corporate leadership.

The fight for gender equality in education reached a turning point with the introduction of Title IX in 1972, a statute which aimed to address the injustices which left women behind in academia. Advocates and activists have made tremendous efforts to ensure that educational institutions adhere to Title IX, focusing on many issues such as sexual violence and negative sex stereotypes. While these efforts are applauded, it is also found that much of this activism work goes into ensuring public schools are not sex-segregated, an attempt which may be counter-intuitive according to the aforementioned findings. While it is understandable that these attempts are made in a bid to undo the stereotypes which were perpetrated by single-sex education in the past, perhaps we should learn to embrace all-girls schools for what they can offer. There seems no more powerful way to combat these stereotypes than through the same institutions they were caused.

Photo: “Girls in STEM