In May the U.S. Supreme Court declared that sexual harassment is a significant impediment to education. While this is an important acknowledgment, we can’t lose sight of the deeper, systematic factors that shape how our girls and boys are educated.
In 1991, the American Association of University Women did a nationwide poll of students ages 9 to 15 which "confirmed a growing body of research that indicates girls are systematically, if unintentionally, discouraged from a wide range of academic pursuits." The study also found that as girls reach adolescence, they experience a significantly greater drop in self-esteem than boys experience, and that the gender gap shows up most dramatically in fields such as science and math.
The AAUW recently released a follow-up report titled "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children," a synthesis of more than 1,000 research studies on gender equity in our schools. The organization doesn’t recommend single-gender classrooms—and its studies show that efforts to deal with these realities shouldn’t wait until the college level. By then most girls have long developed their beliefs about who they are and what they can accomplish. It’s clear that girls develop within a society and an education system that has yet to be freed from sexism, and that’s a reality that needs to be addressed head on.
Since the passing of Title IX, the gap between boys’ and girls’ education has narrowed, and there are many wonderful programs that encourage girls to enter into historically male-dominated fields including math, science, and technology. One such initiative has been to encourage girls to make big mistakes in experimenting with science. Science is based on trial and error, yet often girls who learn young to please as a means of survival fear failure, so they won’t even try.