This article is by Caroline Erisman, Head of School at Dana Hall, an all-girls independent day and boarding school for grades 6-12 in Wellesley, MA.
While it was heartening to see that Maryam Mirzakhani, born and raised in Iran, just became the first woman to win a Fields Medal in mathematics, it is unfortunate that the breaking news in this story wasn’t necessarily her accomplishment, but that she was, in fact, a woman.The Boston Globe recently ran a story about this achievement, and raised a common question: why does our country lag behind others when it comes to encouraging female talent in mathematics, especially when research has shown that mathematical talent is fueled by nurture, not nature? It is an interesting thought, especially given recent coverage of a studyhighlighting how top male professors in life-sciences tend to hire fewer women than female professors do in the same field.
Women make up 50 percent of the population and account for 59 percent of the college-educated entry-level workforce. Today, we can look up to some of the most powerful women in the nation: three Supreme Court justices, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to name a few. But the numbers are not as high as they should be when it comes to female leadership. According to the Center for American Progress, women still only make up 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and a mere 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. In Massachusetts, The Boston Club released a report showing that nearly 14 percent of the 100 largest public companies have women as directors, which is below the national average of 17 percent.
Despite these discouraging statistics, there is reason for optimism. Earlier this year an article in Forbes, “11 Reasons 2014 Will Be a Breakout Year for Women Entrepreneurs,” set forth evidence that explains why the numbers of women-owned firms have increased significantly in the last couple of years. According to research, women are able to build better, more effective teams. Women cooperate and communicate effectively, which are both important qualities of a strong entrepreneur. And women are more proactively seeking visibility these days because they recognize the importance of public speaking, and are beginning to network more aggressively.
While this information is encouraging, it is meaningless unless we ensure that these small gains turn into larger wins. So how do we take what we know and make it mean something? The answer begins with middle and secondary education for girls.
If girls are exposed to and schooled in these skills during middle and high school, they can refine them in college and be prepared to compete on a more even playing field at that level, and when launching a career. We need to cultivate this type of skills-based learning in our girls at an early age. To create female leaders, we need to raise them as leaders. We need to integrate courses into our curricula that go beyond basic English, math and science classes, such as ones geared towards the principles of engineering, or classes that explore the central role of science and technology in shaping human life, civilization and thought. We need to incorporate into our program business-oriented courses that teach our students at a young age how to succeed in the work force. Otherwise women are disadvantaged when they leave school and enter the employment market. We need to continue to foster all-girls programs that provide an atmosphere where girls excel as leaders without a male presence, because research shows that girls are more engaged, and exude more confidence and competitiveness in single-sex environments.
We as women have come so far, and have made such strides towards success and equality, but it is frustrating to know that in the 21st century, barriers continue to block us from the highest achievements. However, if together, we as educators, parents, and mentors, start early enough, and give young girls the right tools to succeed in the future through early education, then generations of girls to come will use these tools to break down the barriers that currently stand in our way.