Innovative high school engineering class fails to make a lasting impact
Title IX is being celebrated this month. As you may know, Title IX was instrumental in increasing the number of women in sports. Since its inception in 1972, the law has led to a drastic increase in female athletes in universities and consequently the world of professional sports.
The text of the law states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
While this law has been great for athletics in particular, it has missed one crucial area—one which is more difficult to reach than any.
Women in math and science.
It’s undeniable: there are fewer women in math and science than men. This has been attributed to many things, from gender stereotypes to innate sexism in the K-12 system.
But one high school—my own alma mater, I must disclose—took drastic action to try to change this. And while the results seemed promising at first, it seems that it largely failed.
Sherwood High School, home to over 1,000 students, enacted a new class last year called “No Boys Allowed.” This class, which was marketed to girls as a feminine engineering class, creating “girly” projects such as jewelry boxes and key chains.
The hope was that the class would encourage girls to study more advanced sciences and mathematics. At first, it seemed that the plan was inexplicably working. About 60 girls signed up for the class.
Some claimed that it was a pleasant change to get to work with other girls rather than in the shadow of their male classmates. Others said that it wasn’t as intimidating working with just girls.
However, even after completing the course, female enrollment in other science courses didn’t change. Some girls said they would like to take more sciences—but only if there were no boys in those classes, too.
Should this high school create a “No Boys Allowed II?” Should other high schools enact similar programs? Do these programs really help young women enter the field of science?
Let me answer all these questions with one simple word: no.
Segregating male and female students does nothing to solve the overarching problems. All it does is give female students the impression that the science they do is different than that of their male peers.
Going back to an “integrated” science class is intimidating; after all, it’s entirely possible that without the cushion of their “female” counterparts and curriculum, they could easily fall back into their old preconceptions.
As a female student of the sciences, I can assure you that it is not always easy. Any girl can attest to the aggravation that sets in when your methods or answers are questioned, particularly in labs, strictly on the basis that you’re a woman.
While the spirit of scientific inquiry does encourage second-guessing and questioning all conclusions, it is disheartening when the majority of this inquiry is directed at those without a Y chromosome by those with a Y chromosome.
Even among the sciences, there is a distinct view of “feminine” and “masculine” sciences. Biology, for example, is a science many see as an acceptable field of study for a woman. Physics, on the other hand, is traditionally dominated by men, and women who attempt to enter this field are often looked upon strangely.
The stigma of science as unfeminine is not going to be resolved by creating “girls only” science or math classes. If anything, this could hurt the efforts to increase the number of women in the sciences. Segregating classes by sex reinforces the idea that women must approach the discipline differently from men, and therefore that there are different “sciences” for men and women.
Conversely, a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that it is not the sex of one’s classmates but rather that of the teacher that makes the most difference. According to the study, female students whose introductory science classes were taught by other women were more likely to achieve higher standardized test scores and continue studying the sciences than those taught by men.
This may be one of the reasons why Sherwood High School’s attempt at interesting girls in science ultimately failed. While the class focused on interesting young women in science, it was taught by a male instructor. In addition, the class did nothing to give female students the confidence or preparation to once again be integrated into co-ed science classes, which they are almost certain to attend if they pursue higher education.
Until the stigma facing women in the sciences is remedied, there will always be a clear gap between men and women in the sciences. Women make up a mere 25 percent of science and math-related workplaces, and they are 37 percent less likely to pursue a degree in math or science than men. It is the product of our society’s own biases and reinforcements thereof, and it must be reversed. Women should feel free to study and work in whatever field they like without fearing judgment from their peers or society at large.
After all, if Title IX could remove so much of the stigma from female athletes, there must be something that can be done for women studying math and science.