5 Ways to Help Women Achieve Educational Success

While the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our economy, women continue to be disproportionately impacted. Now is the time to look at the long game. What changes can society make in order to insure that when the next big crisis happens, women don’t bear the brunt of it. Education, of course, has always been on the front line of changing societal disparities. However, much of the time we don’t look at the root causes of why young women underperform in certain areas. Below are five ways we can position women for educational success, from girlhood to the moment they walk into their first job. If you are a teacher, give this list to the parents you work with. Help them set the tone now so our girls grow up ready to take on the world.

  1. DON’T TELL ME I’M PRETTY
    Little girls, from the time they are young, are praised for how beautiful they are.  We talk to girls about how they look and boys about what they do. This escalates when little girls hit puberty. This is when girls start deriving their social capital from their looks and their grades start to tank. Fight this trend by praising young women for what they do. Don’t say, “You’re so beautiful!” Instead say, “I love how curious you are about the solar system! You’re such an interesting person to talk to!”
     
  2. DON’T TELL ME I’M SMART
    This sounds a little bit strange, but often little boys are praised for their hard work and girls are praised for their inherent intelligence. The problem with this is that when a little girl doesn’t do well she thinks it has to do with how smart she is rather than her work ethic. Her failures become a referendum on her intelligence.  Say, “Wow, you really worked hard” rather than, “Wow, you’re so smart!” You can always work harder, but you can’t change the brains you were born with! 
     
  3. DON’T BE TOO NICE TO ME
    When young women struggle in the sciences or STEM, often parents try to protect their feelings.  This can take the form of telling young women who are struggling that perhaps their major is just too hard --maybe they should do something that makes their life a little easier. Boys get the message not to give up - girls get the message to take the path of least resistance. Don’t coddle your girls. Hold them to the same tough standard you have with your boys.
     
  4. DON’T SEE ME ONLY AS A GIRL OR A WOMAN
    Understand that if you are trying to support women you cannot do that in a White Woman vacuum. If a young woman you know is struggling, look at the other issues that might be intersecting. Does she have a disability? Is she a woman of color? Is she the first generation to go to college in her family? Audre Lorde famously said “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.“ Make sure you are not treating every woman as if she is the same simply because of her gender. There could be all kinds of intersections that are also impacting her situation.
     
  5. DO VALUE MY VOICE
    If you are an educator, pay attention to who you are listening to. Note how you value different voices. The patterns that impact girls and young women follow them throughout their education and into adulthood. Pay attention to who you’re calling on in class. Whose voice gets more weight? Watch for classroom dynamics that make certain people feel they have the right to speak and others feel they must remain silent. Be sure to encourage every student from kindergarten to PhD candidates to speak up and then make sure you’re listening. It’s wonderful how much weight we give to the voices of men and boys. Women should be afforded the same courtesy.
Women’s success doesn’t just come from hiring women or making sure we are paid the same for doing the same work. It comes from making sure every woman, from the time she is a little girl, is given the message that she has worth, and that if she works hard enough, she can achieve her dreams. Let’s not tell our girls that they are pretty flowers who might crumble when life knocks them down. Let’s give them the message that life can be hard, but they can work harder, and if they do, success will be theirs.

Eliza VanCort is an in-demand consultant, speaker, and writer on communications, career and workplace issues, and women’s empowerment. The founder of The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca, she is also a Cook House Fellow at Cornell University, an advisory board member of the Performing Arts for Social Change, a Diversity Crew partner, and a member of Govern For America’s League of Innovators. Her first book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard., publishes May 11, 2021.

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