Improving the educational experience of girls is one of the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) chief goals. A major policy lobbyist in Washington, AAUW promotes Title IX, pay equity, and other important issues, and has drawn widespread attention to problems girls face in school with its series of research-based reports on such topics as sexual harassment, tech savvy for girls, and single-gender education.
Jackie Woods left her job as director of the community college liaision office at the U.S. Department of Education to become the AAUW’s executive director in 2000. Before that she served as vice chancellor of city colleges for Chicago, among other roles in higher education. Despite her impressive pedigree, Woods is a warm and down-to-earth woman whose very real concern for girls shone forth during our interview with Jackie Woods on Girls Education.
The Good News
“The good news about girls today is that, first, they are attending school and staying in school in greater numbers, both in K–12 and college. In fact, over 58 percent of our college students today are women. Second, we have made great strides in the math and science gender gap (though we still have a way to go). And third, awareness of the needs of girls and women has grown in the lay population. It’s no longer something regular people aren’t sensitive to.
“Nevertheless, we can’t rest on our laurels just yet. We still don’t have total equity. And the challenge is going to be keeping the equity issue on the radar screen, among officials on all levels.
“The most important issues now still center around access to higher education and certain professions. I feel strongly that some of the people influencing our girls’ choices are still imposing their own sexist biases and opinions on those choices. It’s critically important that teachers, counselors and others in positions of power are giving objective opinions to our kids. Our counselors, especially, are extremely influential people. So we need to keep training them. We don’t really put resources and money into it. Not only do they need to counsel kids better academically, but they also need to know how to handle the social issues that also affect kids in schools today. We’ve got issues now—such as AIDS, drugs, gambling, sexual harassment, and abuse—that we are seeing in larger numbers than ever before.”
Harassment a Huge Problem
“Harassment is so prevalent in our schools. It’s overwhelming, the number of people who come to me with their stories. I’ve had camera people at press conferences pull me aside and tell me long stories about things that have happened to their daughters in school. And I’m talking harassment based on weight, size, gender, color, religion, class—you name it. Parents feel they have nowhere to go for help. Schools too often still tell them “boys will be boys,” or “girls will be girls.” If they complain to the perpetrator’s parents, those parents are often highly offended, saying, ‘Don’t tell me anything bad about my child.’
“Too often parents have little recourse. They wonder, Where can I go to get the help I need? It’s alarming what a problem this has become. We must spend more time dealing with it. It has a lot to do with the health of our schools and communities. For many young people who act out in schools—including most of the school shooters—harassment is one of the roots of their problems. We as a country can’t afford to ignore it.
“And harassment is not just physical in nature—we do a lot of damage with our mouths. Spreading sexual rumors, name-calling, homophobia, and racial epithets are rampant and damaging; so is unwelcome touching. And to solve it will take more than one mention. We can’t just have a ‘harassment moment.’ Teaching about this has got to be woven into everything that happens in schools.”
From School to Work
“One of our deepest concerns at AAUW is a young woman’s transition from school/home to work/adult life. How do we make sure girls are successfully competitive, that they are transitioning from school to work in a positive way? How can we make sure they feel like empowered contributors to society? This is especially important because young women’s choices today are so diverse. Although that is welcome, it’s also true that more choices can mean more obstacles. We need to help them look at career development, make sure they really have the opportunity to succeed.
“Another thing that gets in the way of women’s advancement is the rising cost of education, and the economic barrier that creates. We are more and more turning into a country of haves and have-nots. I have watched too many bright and talented kids whose families had to choose between education and survival. That’s an unfair choice in a country as rich as ours. Or we can get women in the door at college, but we don’t provide them with the wherewithal to continue. As a country we need to do better than that.
“Unfortunately, there are lots of people in the public policy world who make major decisions about education but have never lived any of these experiences. And that’s awful. It’s important that some of us at the table are challenging decisions they’re making that are unrealistic for the masses. To provide that point of view, I try to stay grounded. I have spent lots of time on college campuses figuring out what they really can and cannot do. I stay connected through community activities, where I meet all kinds of people from all walks of life. It’s arrogant of me to think I can make decisions for people whose lifestyles I have no clue about. We need to fight for those who don’t have voices, if we are to create a world better for them and for us.”
What Parents Can Do
“So what can parents do, on a more personal level? First, be involved. You need to know what’s happening in school for your girl. You need to know what her opinions are about what’s happening. You need to establish a line of communication so she feels comfortable telling you about the good, the bad, and the ugly. What does she like? What excites her? What’s unspoken? Is she really okay? You can’t get that from just a goodbye kiss in the morning.
“Second, listen. Our girls can help us solve their problems if we truly hear their complaints, fears, dreams. We shouldn’t always be telling them what to do. A young friend gave me a lesson on this once. She said, ‘Sometimes your generation wants to fix things for us, but you don’t invite us to help. We might not feel the same way about things, we might not have the same solutions, or even need you to fix this for us.’ So partner with your girl in all areas, from curfews and doing homework to talking to teachers. Model respect and model having reasoned dialogues. Even if you do all that, though, know that she’ll still make mistakes. Just make sure she can come to you with her mistakes.”
AAUW publications of interest: