October 11, International Day of the Girl Child, was established by the UN General Assembly in response to the need for greater opportunities for girls, especially in education and health, and for greater protection from domestic violence, forced child marriage, and discrimination. In the United States, we often assume that we've already solved the problem of gender inequality in education. Girls have lower high-school dropout rates than boys, and more girls are attending college. Special programs channel girls into subjects where they were traditionally underrepresented, and summer immersion programs provide intensive training and introductions to potential mentors. School counselors are more sensitive to gender equality in scheduling students. In Five Ways to Get Girls into STEM, Karen Purcell points out that the Girl Scouts are also striving to build interest in STEM subjects.
Gender Inequality in Education
Nevertheless, just as greater social awareness and the '60s civil rights legislation did not end racism, so Title IX programs did not end gender inequality. Poverty, stereotyping, harassment, and even violence can still limit girls' access to education. A former student, currently pursuing a PhD, wrote me this about her first year as a college undergraduate in engineering:
The outright sexism I faced as a woman was shocking . . . It was blatant enough that I vividly remember being called the "token pretty girl" in my class by a differential equations professor. He nicknamed me Katie Couric for the rest of the semester, and I didn’t have the guts to stand up to him.
The huge challenge that we haven't surmounted as an educational system is that "hard science" departments are still mired in an age where women didn't have a place in technical science . . . and that environment is daunting. So many girls start a career in STEM and never finish their education because they're weeded out of the field.
Even before college, our girls aren't given the tools they need to succeed in STEM . . . We need to take initiative in bringing girls into the field and training them to overcome the barriers they'll face in college. Mentoring goes a long way . . . Training teachers at all levels to teach STEM without bias (even unconscious bias) is crucial, too.
Another former student brought up an article she'd read about a summer camp that offered plenty of different options for boys interested in science. However, the only offering for girls with such an inclination was the chance to make lip gloss! She pointed out that . . .
. . . things are starting to change for girls in high school [and beyond] since they're minorities in science/math fields, so funding them is encouraged, but at younger ages, girls aren't really expected to be that competent in those fields. The question ends up being a nature vs. nurture thing. Is there a lack of women in science/mathematics because women inherently aren't interested? Or do perceived gender roles hinder interest from a young age?
Sexual harassment is also an issue holding girls back. Each fall, most schools train their teachers in the law governing sexual harassment. Yet as we saw in this past summer's case of the senior accused of raping a freshman girl at the elite St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire (as part of a long tradition known as "senior salute"), teachers can be totally unaware or even turn a blind eye to harassment.
3 Inspiring Films
How will you be marking this day in your own classes? One way to initiate a dialogue is to use film showing what conditions are like for girls in other parts of the world. Here are a few suggestions.
He Named Me Malala, premiering in October, is a documentary on the life of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for standing up for girls' education in Pakistan. There are free field trips to see the film, and a discussion guide and a full set of free lesson plans are available. In social studies, discussing the attack on Malala could lead to discussions of domestic or dating violence that your students may have experienced. They could also learn about how teenagers can have a significant impact in changing these social conditions. Malala's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech could become the basis for an AP class on persuasive writing.
Another documentary, Girl Rising, follows girls from all over the world -- Cambodia, Nepal, Haiti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, India, Peru, and Sierra Leone -- who are determined to get an education despite poverty, early marriage, forced labor, and violence. The film is segmented, so that just one or two chapters could be used fruitfully to discuss issues of concern. You could tailor a film screening to your students' age and maturity level. A curriculum and two free film chapters are available from the Girl Rising website.
Wadjda is about a nine-year-old Saudi girl determined to own and ride a bicycle, an activity forbidden to girls. This film provides insight into the restrictions that some girls face. With the help of a boy who is a good friend, Wadjda succeeds. Made under tight restrictions by a Saudi woman director, this film can lead into a discussion of the roles that boys and men should play in supporting girls' ambitions.
How will you involve your class and your school in the International Day of the Girl?