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Forum examines challenges women and girls face in jobs, education

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Forum examines challenges women and girls face in jobs, education
Meekerley Sanon, a science teacher at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School’s Lucy Stone campus, speaks as part of a panel discussion on the role of educators in expanding girls’ career and college aspirations. With her on the panel are Iliana D’Limas, school adjustment counselor, Worcester Public Schools, and Daren Graves, associate professor of education, Simmons College.

Boston-area middle school girls who participate in girl-serving programs — and especially those in multiple programs — show higher degrees of self-confidence and a wider view on career options than non-participating girls, according to a study conducted by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts and Simmons College.

Both girls and boys receive gender-specific messages that negatively affect girls’ career aspirations, the study found.

These were a few of the findings discussed last week at “Dreaming Big: Making the Case for Girls,” a day-long forum presented by Simmons College and Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. The event brought educators, policymakers, girl-serving organizations and funders together to focus on leadership and career aspirations for middle-school girls.

Boston City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley spoke about tackling girls’ issues with public policy.

While much local attention has been focused recently on young men of color, Pressley has been championing the cause of the city’s girls and women since she joined the council in 2009, including forming and leading the city’s Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities and working to expand education options for pregnant and parenting teens.

She shared the story of her own girlhood growing up with a strong mother but a struggling and absent father, and how with adult help, she was able to grow and succeed despite suffering sexual abuse.

“As is the case for so many girls, I didn’t act out — I shut down,” she said. “A school nurse recognized my trauma and intervened. And even though my grades did not reflect my aptitude, I had leadership development. It saved me. It made it possible for me to change my trajectory.”

Pressley decried the tendency toward an “either-or” debate about boys or girls.

“When I say, ‘What about the girls?’ there isn’t always much reception around that,” she said. “But this does not exclude our boys and men, because our destiny is tied.”

Advocates for girls are trying to level the playing field, an audience member noted, not to privilege girls over boys.

The forum’s printed program relayed figures on women’s low numbers in U.S. business leadership: Women hold only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions; even in the nonprofit world, where 75 percent of workers are women, less than 17 percent of the largest nonprofits are women-led; in the education field, women make up 75 percent of teachers, but only 30 percent of education leaders.

The recent elections raised the number of women in Congress to over 100 for the first time, but at less than 20 percent, it’s still far from mirroring the proportion of women in the U.S. population. And women of color hold only 6 percent of congressional seats, though they make up 18 percent of the population. Only one African American woman is a Fortune 500 CEO, and few have ever been mayors, senators or governors.

These figures help explain why adolescent girls and especially girls of color have few leaders to emulate when picturing themselves in careers.

To make matters worse, 30 percent of Boston girls reported they rarely or never felt safe in many of the places they frequent, according to a Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center study. This statistic, cited by Kaitie Chakoian of the Dorchester-based nonprofit Girls LEAP, shows the obstacles some girls face long before they encounter the corporate world’s “glass ceiling.”

Karyn Martin, director of council initiatives and research at Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts presented findings from a study on middle school girls’ career influences and aspirations, recently updated to include more girls of color.

While all girls chose “helping others” as a top goal, girls of color ranked “being respected” and “making lots of money” more highly than white girls did.

When asked what their parents want them to do for a career, 40 percent of girls responded that they don’t know. Less than 5 percent said their parents want them to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields — which include some of the highest-paying jobs.

Girls of color were more likely to be told not to pursue a particular career, Martin said.

Audience members suggested that telling girls the salaries for different careers could help widen college and career aspirations, as could explaining that numerous fields can lead to their sought-after rewards of “helping people” and “being famous.”

The forum drew representatives of many agencies and nonprofits, including Boston Centers for Youth and Families, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, Science Club for Girls, Girls Rock Campaign Boston, Girls Inc., YWCA, GRLZ Radio, the Investing in Girls Alliance and Strong Women, Strong Girls, along with Simmons College and area Girl Scouts groups. Panel discussions covered the roles of organizations, funders and educators in enhancing girls’ confidence and career outlook.

In schools, communicating messages on girls’ success “often happens in the soft moments” outside the classroom, said Meekerley Sanon, a science teacher at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. She added that sharing her own path, which includes a degree from MIT and experience as a first-generation American, has been instructive to younger girls.

Sanon also mentioned “professional dress days,” interview days and frequent college campus visits that help students at her school see positive futures.

But the panel agreed that even when top women scientists visit to speak about their jobs, students still need to receive information on the steps required to enter those fields.

Daren Graves, a Simmons College associate professor of education and father of three girls, said adults needn’t sugar-coat the reality of the discrimination girls may face.

“Let’s not pretend that racism and sexism are things they don’t need to navigate,” he said. “We need to empower them with the skills to navigate.”

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