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A night of girl power and girl talk: How are girls really doing?

I participated in a panel tonight at the Center for Civil and Human Rights to mark International Women's Day. The headliner was First Lady Sandra Deal, who showed up despite a serious case of laryngitis.

Mrs. Deal joked her ragged whisper was the result of Read Across Georgia month -- she has now read in every one of Georgia’s school systems, 600 schools all told over the years. She stayed long enough to greet the crowd and then headed home, hopefully to bed and tea.

The panel was fascinating and moderated by my former AJC colleague Moni Basu, who is now with CNN. It included Janice McKenzie-Crayton, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, who spoke about mentoring; Spelman sophomore Mary-Pat Hector, National Youth Director for National Action Network and Stonecrest City Council Candidate, who spike about civic engagement among young women; Valerie Montgomery-Rice, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, who shared her experiences at Georgia Tech and Harvard Medical School in discussing the importance of science and math; Karin Ryan, senior policy adviser on human rights and special representative on Women and Girls at the Carter Center, who spoke about the sex trade and women; and Beth-Sarah Wright, director of enrollment management, Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, and adjunct assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, who spoke about mental health.

I was the final speaker, over prepared with 15 pages of notes for a short presentation and overwhelmed by the powerful commentary of my fellow panelists, all of whom emphasized the importance of mentors in their lives and the power of teachers to broaden a girl's view of herself and her place in the world.

My task was to discuss inequities in education related to girls. Girls are doing pretty well, at least based on surface measures:

•72 percent of girls graduate high school, compared with 65 percent of boys.

•In 2015, 39 percent of women aged 25 to 29 had completed a bachelor’s degree. Only 32 percent of men had.

But not all the numbers are so glowing, especially when you look at the rate of women pursuing the jobs of the future:

•Women still are overrepresented in lower-paying occupations. Women make up 56 percent of workers in the 20 lowest-paid jobs, and just 29 percent of those in the 20 highest-paid jobs.

•Last year, 54,379 students took the AP Computer Science A exam in the United States, a 17 percent increase over 2015. Only 23 percent of those test takers were girls. Two states, Mississippi and Montana, didn't have a single girl take the exam.

•In 2013, only 18 percent of bachelor's degrees in computing were earned by women.

I talked about the role of teachers in inspiring girls in math and science; studies suggest elementary school teachers may have the most impact in influencing a girl's interest in STEM and her confidence in her ability to succeed in it.

I also talked how parents sometimes restrain their girls' reach, discouraging their bright daughters from straying too far from home for college.

I discussed the disparity in school discipline, a problem often cited in the context of African-American boys. But black girls also experience a disparate share of suspensions; the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education found from 2011 to 2012 that black girls in public elementary and secondary schools were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of 2 percent for white girls. And often for what might be considered subjective judgments, such as having a bad attitude or being defiant.

Spelman sophomore Mary-Pat Hector, a wunderkind who began advocating for youth at age 11, said she was often criticized for being "loud" when she spoke up or asked questions. She was told she was being "bossy."

In researching suspensions, I ran into a very interesting online discussion about how often black students are suspended for skipping classes. One school found black students did not skip classes any more than white students; white students just weren't getting in trouble for it because their parents signed them out of class under the pretense of dental or medical appointments. Under school policy, excused absences after a parent calls carry no consequences.

White parents would allow their sons or daughters to miss a class or leave school early because they had a big project to finish. I have seen this firsthand. Friends will get a text from their kids about how tired they are from a late-night study session or an away basketball game. The parents will go to school and sign them out or call to clear them to leave. Or, parents will let their kids sleep in and miss first period.

Black kids were suffering the consequences for missing class because their parents didn't cover for them. The problem was the resulting suspensions set the black students on a downward spiral of bad grades. The school revised its policies.

I also talked about the growing unease with the social media addiction of young girls, who have turned their lives into a never-ending stream of photos and videos on Instagram or Snapchat, all with the underlying theme of  "like me." Many counselors are reporting rising stress levels among  girls, and I don't think social media with its instant and often harsh judgments helps.








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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.