Can-Do Day Does It for Middle-School Girls

Girls of all shapes and sizes collect and walk toward Olney Hall at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. They sport sneakers and platforms, do-rags and pigtails, shirts reading "Girlz Rule" and "I love Yorkies" and "Britney Spears." It is obvious that individuals with a wide variety of interests are represented here at Can-Do Day, a math-and-science-focused career day for middle-school girls sponsored by the Marin chapters of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Nearby, boys skateboard. Two stragglers scurry past. One pushes her bangs out of her eyes and says, "Oh, look. Can't-do day." Their muffled laughter floats in the air like a promise. They hurry in to hear the keynote speaker, an entrepreneur whose own experiences have motivated her to try to inspire girls to pursue careers in fields once considered to be masculine.

Can-Do Day is all about encouraging girls to focus on – and excel in – math and science. In 1991, the AAUW did a study to determine the impact of gender on self-esteem, career aspirations, educational experiences, and interest in math and science. The study found that as girls reach adolescence, they experience a significantly greater drop in self-esteem than boys experience. The study also confirms a growing body of research that indicates girls are systematically, if unintentionally, discouraged from a wide range of academic pursuits – particularly in math and science.

This gap in self-esteem and drop in girls' interest in math and science have devastating consequences for the future of girls. In order for females to compete in a competitive job market, they should take science and math courses throughout high school and college. To address this issue, the national AAUW articulated a concept to its local chapters: reach out to girls while they are in middle school, and show them why they should stick with these two fields.

One community's response
Marin's three AAUW chapters answered the call with a very effective campaign. For nine years they have presented the Can-Do exposition to every one of the county's middle-school girls. Each fall, this half-day event brings together middle-school girls and women in business, industry, and education, and features hands-on workshops given by women with careers in exciting fields. The subtle but unambiguous message: Stay with science and math, because your knowledge can help you have a meaningful, fulfilling career.

The centerpiece of the exposition is career hall, where girls can meet and speak with women pursuing careers in a wide variety of professions that use math and science. Here girls eagerly cluster around judges, FBI agents, and internists, asking questions and collecting literature. The excitement the girls feel is shared by the women who have volunteered. Dentist and three-year participant Myrna Menjivar-Gray says, "I'd like other girls to study dentistry as I did. It's a beautiful profession, and I enjoy what I do."

Angela Cheung, a water quality engineer, explains her participation like this: "I just think it's good for girls to have mentors. I certainly had mine when I was growing up."

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