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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world. 


girl science- 12.16.11

I received an email recently the contents of which I must share with you… one of our second grade girls, sitting in the library with her classmates reading about space, runs up to the librarian and says: “Did you know Neil Armstrong’s footprints are still on the moon?”

“Wow”, says our librarian, “isn’t that cool!”

“Yeah,” the little girl replies, her eyes large with wonder, “her footprints have been there for a very long time!”

Ever the gentle educator, our librarian says: “You mean “he,” right? Neil Armstrong was a boy.”

The second grader’s eyes get larger yet – and, absolutely stunned, she slowly absorbs this news, as if she can’t quite believe what she is hearing. “Neil Armstrong is a boy?”

And off she dashes to her classmates to share this unlikely bit of information. Astronauts can be boys!

We can talk about this sweet anecdote in isolation – after all, this is but one girl, who has not yet bought into a stereotype that astronauts and scientists in general are typically male.

 In fact, research has shown that when children, boys and girls alike, are asked to draw a scientist, they draw male figures in overwhelming numbers. Think about it – most of us typically don’t associate chemistry sets as the perfect gift for little girls. Commercials for cleaning products feature women as the users. It is not usual to see an advertisement that has a dad making dinner for his family 

When we picture tinkering in the garage, building a bookcase or laying a floor, most of us don’t think of moms and daughters. (Full disclosure: I myself am horribly deficient at any task that requires fine motor skills, physical strength and acute spatial awareness. So yes, in my house, my children most definitely did not associate those activities with the major female figure in their lives.)

Through these experiences, however, our girls and boys learn the lessons of gender roles – and gender strengths and preferences. When my math teacher told me in 9th grade that I should be happy with a C on my final exam, because I was “just not good at math,” I internalized her assessment fully, and for the remainder of my high school life, I worked to achieve that C, and only that C.

But here is where it gets interesting – is it possible to change the lessons we send our girls? Is it possible, in the face of overwhelming evidence that girls have the same innate capacity to be scientists and mathematicians that boys do, to create a generation of women who own those subjects as generations of women before have owned language and history? 

Last year, I asked one of our first grade teachers to replicate the experiment I mentioned earlier. My curiosity was simply this: when we educate girls in a single-sex environment, and we give them the message that they are fully capable to tackle any subject with ease, are we inoculating them from a society that sends messages to the contrary? (Remember the “Allergic to Algebra” t-shirt? That was NOT marketed to boys.)

As girls walked into class one morning, a blank sheet of paper was waiting for them on their desk. The teacher had written them a note: “Please draw a scientist.” No conversation to influence the girls’ interpretation of the assignment, just a plain directive.

When all of those drawings arrived in my office later that day, I felt that opening the large brown envelope that contained them was going to represent, for me, a moment of truth: how strongly were our girls influenced by a larger culture, and how well have we, and their parents, counteracted that influence?

If you are reluctant to believe me, the evidence hangs in my office: to a last one, the girls drew female scientists. To a last one! Against all odds, counter to everything we know about stereotyping, and despite the messages they are sent in commercials, cartoons, Disney movies, you name it, our girls truly saw only reflections of themselves dressed in lab coats and working with Bunsen burners.

The drawings gave me chills – and reminded me why what we do for girls is so powerful and so important. I am not suggesting we are the only ones who can achieve similar results. I believe that intentionally changing the messages we send boys and girls can make a difference in how the next generation shapes its beliefs about itself. I am suggesting that I work in an environment where results like this come naturally. And to me, that is remarkable, and ultimately, what we are truly about.

Posted by on Friday December, 16, 2011

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