Girls’ Schools: Uniquely Positioned to Help Close the Gender Gap

concentrated serious girl carefully arrange coins on the table

In “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap,” released this fall from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women are now earning $0.79 to $1.00 earned by their male counterparts. While this figure is $0.02 more than the often cited $0.77 statistic, the AAUW predicts, “At the current rate, the gap won’t close for more than 100 years.” The pay gap is even greater for women of color—the AAUW reports Latinas earn $0.54, Native American women earn $0.59, and African-American women earn $0.63 for every $1.00 that a full-time, white male earns.

In the last thirty years, women have closed the wage gap by $0.20, largely because of increased access to higher education. Now, with more women in college than men, the question persists: where is the missing $0.21? Even though higher education has the capacity to increase a woman’s earning power over her lifetime, the answer is in part linked to how our culture defines what is socially acceptable behavior for women.

In her recent essay “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars,” actor Jennifer Lawrence writes that when she discovered the wage gap between her and her male co-stars, “I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early… But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”

To people who work in an all-girls school, Lawrence’s admission came as no surprise, because we are attuned to how our culture persistently undermines female authority, and because this undermining begins early. In The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence, author Rachel Simmons writes, “Our culture of teaching girls to embrace a model of selfhood that sharply curtails their power and potential. In particular, the pressure to be ‘Good’—unerringly nice, polite, modest, and selfless—diminishes girls’ authenticity and personal authority.” In return, girls are rewarded with praise from adults and the acceptance of her peers, all of which are conditional on her continued compliance to the social codes, which keep her from being her authentic self. The internalized pressure to behave in ways that undercuts one’s personal power is pervasive and has real costs. Specifically, it can cost a woman $0.21 on every $1.00 that is rightfully hers.

Certainly, we all have an interest and responsibility in retrieving that money and closing the wage gap, and girls’ schools are uniquely positioned to make real strides towards that goal.

Beyond offering cutting-edge academic programs, girls’ schools understand that emotional and social coaching is key to girls’ success in the world at large. Explicitly designing experiences and pedagogy that coach girls to negotiate and advocate for themselves gives an emotional and social advantage for what lies ahead. In other words, we have the chance to do more than prepare girls academically for the next steps. In a similar vein to the missions at so many girls’ schools, part of our mission at Miss Hall’s School is to “encourage each girl to pursue the highest standard of learning and character; to contribute boldly and creatively to the common good.” To that end we encourage girls to be the own architects of an inner steel core that will keep her steady and resolute when facing adversity.

At Miss Hall’s, we think hard about that $0.21. To guide our programming and curriculum, we have outlined four competencies that form the core of our leadership ethos: vision, voice, interpersonal efficacy, and gumption. Vision helps a girl maintain focus and clarity of purpose, and developing voice allows her to explicitly learn to advocate, negotiate, and set boundaries for herself and others. Girls are coached in interpersonal efficacy, which will help a girl to know herself and others while building alliances and networks. Finally, we frame our curriculum and programs toward developing a healthy sense of gumption, which keeps a girl emotionally and intellectually nimble no matter her surroundings. While each girl is on her own path towards developing these behaviors, each will contribute to her ability to be her own best resource at school and in the world.

We are proud of our work on behalf of girls, but girls’ schools are only one part of a larger group of people and institutions who are changing the lives of young women. Those of us who are passionate about this work know our schools have the capacity to boldly and creatively change the story about women in the workplace.

Anne Rubin, English Teacher, Miss Hall’s School

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