First Person / The power of girls

Here’s how an all-girls education can make a difference

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Despite our efforts to educate and empower them, women continue to make less money than men and are largely absent at the top ranks of leadership. Clearly we need to shift our social systems to accommodate female success. One important means of promoting equality in the workplace may involve giving all-girls schools a longer look.

All-girls schools can foster equality by increasing female confidence. Journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay recently published a book about the “confidence gap.” The authors posit that if women simply believed in themselves more and let other people know it, then gender-related professional gaps would close.

Critics of this advice say that we should not put the onus on women but on society for failing to nurture confident women. Feminist author Jessica Valenti writes in The Guardian that our culture “gives women no reason to feel self-assured. … The truth is, if you’re not insecure, you’re not paying attention.”

Reading this dialogue made me consider how I gained the confidence to stay on my career path in an incredibly male-dominated field.

As a Ph.D. student in computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I am often the only woman in the room. I was one of three women majoring in computer science in my graduation class at Harvard.

There were eight women out of 45 in the entering class of my Ph.D. program and I still have often been made to feel as though I do not belong: People have talked over me, looked past me and told me, “You’re only here because you are a woman.”

I once told a friend that being a woman in technology is like being an overweight fitness instructor: You have to work much harder to gain people’s trust. Fortunately, my education had given me the confidence to overcome this barrier.

Grades six through 12 I attended The Ellis School in Shadyside, a small, secular all-girls private school.

There is no denying that Ellis gave me an excellent education: I found myself well-prepared for AP exams and for Harvard coursework. I learned the math and science that formed the foundation for my career, as well as my foundations in history, literature and art history that formed the basis of my interests as a member of society. Under the guidance of my teachers, I found my voice in classroom discussions and in prose essays. When I graduated, I felt ready to take on the world.

After Ellis, the “real world” was jarring. I discovered, as Ms. Valenti predicted, an increasing feeling of insecurity.

My freshman year at Harvard, I was frustrated that people did not listen to me as they did at Ellis. I was surprised that there appeared to be well-defined gender roles for men and women and that I felt pressure to conform.

While the men were outspoken and confident, women tended to adopt more diffident — even timid — demeanors, qualifying their statements and downplaying the novelty of their own ideas. Worse, it seemed that when I followed these prescribed gender roles, people listened to me even less and treated me like I was less competent. As a result, I began to question my abilities and wonder whether my ambitions were realistic.

Fortunately, Ellis had given me something far more valuable than a solid academic education. At Ellis, I experienced what it was like to have nobody treat me differently because of my gender. At Ellis, I saw many models for acting both feminine and competent — and learned that I should not need to choose between the two.

Nobody doubted my mathematical skill, my ambition or my intelligence. What mattered was my performance. Spending seven years there taught me that I had ideas worth listening to and ambitions worth achieving. My time at Ellis gave me a clear idea of who I was and what I was capable of doing.

After Ellis, I refused to be ignored or to be dismissed as less competent. With the help of my undergraduate professors, I learned to navigate my new environment.

When people talked over me, I learned to not take it personally. I learned the masculine language of confidence: to speak more often, more loudly and with more self-assuredness than I felt. Because I had seen other ways of expressing competence, I was able to use these “masculine” behaviors as tools rather than allowing them to define me.

Now, people say I am “surprisingly happy” for a Ph.D. student at one of the most competitive programs in the world. People have even called me “intimidating.” My all-girls education gave me the perspective to control my environment in order to do work that I love.

While there is disagreement about using learning differences or test scores to justify single-sex education, all-girls schools serve another indisputably important purpose: They allow young women to discover who they are free of gender roles. All-girls schools nurture women who can feel both feminine and competent, who have the self-assurance to pursue their goals even in antagonistic environments.

One day, we will have full gender equality and these issues will be irrelevant. In the interim, all-girls schools may provide just what we need to close the “confidence gap” and bring us closer to that day.

Jean Yang graduated from Harvard in 2008 and Ellis in 2004. Her Ph.D. work on the Jeeves programming language has been covered by Wired and Fast Company and she co-directs NeuWrite Boston, a collaborative working group for writers and scientists.


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