We recently caught up with Megan Murphy, the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools after she visited the Oak Knoll School campus earlier this fall. Here, she talks about issues facing girls’ schools, her hope for empowering girls’ voices and girls' school misconceptions.
1. What do you see as the top issues facing girls’ schools today?
A recent survey of member schools showed girls’ school educators want to better understand and actively address increasing anxiety among students; the impact of social media on girls; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and developing leaders and global citizens who have the essential skills needed to navigate an increasingly complex and polarized world.
2. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for girls’ schools?
Girls’ schools are more relevant today than ever before as we prepare girls to become the influential contributors and leaders our world needs. Women are dominating the headlines. Driving these headlines is a movement for women to play a fuller role in the world, from boardrooms to government, tech to finance sectors, equal pay to more respect in the workplace. It is more important than ever to listen, foster, and amplify the voices of girls and young women —and to encourage them to assert their voices to stand up and be counted. Girls’ schools do exactly that.
Girls’ schools prepare girls to become women who live lives of commitment and contribution by fostering their voices at a young age. At girls’ schools, students are encouraged — really, expected — to speak their minds. A national survey found that nearly 87 percent of girls’ school students feel their voices are respected compared to 58 percent of girls at coed schools.
Girls’ schools are also impacting society’s lack of women going into STEM-related fields. In addition to the arts and humanities, girls’ schools have a long history of engaging girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. Girls’ schools are leading the way in STEM education for women with graduates being six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to consider majoring in engineering compared to girls who attended coed schools.
3. You recently wrote about the importance of mentoring young girls. Who do you think are the best role models today?
The best role models for girls are the ones they see every day: at school in the advanced calculus and physics courses, at swim practice, at Girl Scout meetings, on the robotics team. Girls need role models to help them become their best selves. It is critical and powerful for girls “to see it in order to be it.” Research has found positive female role models are essential for girls to grow into confident women, especially as they choose university majors and career paths that are needed in today’s world. When girls and young women have strong female mentors and positive role models starting at formative ages in the classroom and their school community, we can better prepare them to tackle their future with confidence and imagination.
4. How should schools empower young female voices today?
Just by the nature of being in an all-girls' educational environment, girls are getting more opportunities to develop and assert their voices.
“Academic studies and countless anecdotes make it clear that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men,” noted a New York Times article. Deep learning requires an atmosphere of respect that encourages students to engage in dialogue. Girls’ schools are such places.
Research supports that girls’ schools provide an “institutional and classroom climate in which female students can express themselves freely and frequently and develop higher order thinking skills.”
Girls’ schools can further empower girls by providing opportunities for girls to try new challenges. The best way for young and adolescent girls to establish their convictions, and then to develop the confidence and tools to be heard, is to be part of an environment where a girl and her unique capabilities are embraced for what they are and not limited to what society expects them to be.
The most powerful message a girl can receive is there are no limits to what subjects she can study or careers she can pursue. At girls’ schools, there are no glass ceilings and no assumptions about what girls excel at or prefer. Girls’ school students develop the confidence to take healthy risks such as engaging in advanced level courses, playing different sports, taking on leadership roles, and joining extracurricular clubs. By providing these opportunities for girls to challenge themselves, girls’ school students are encouraged to stand up and speak up.
5. Where do you see the most room for growth programmatically at girls’ schools?
Programmatically, I encourage girls’ schools to continue addressing one of the issues facing girls’ schools today: the need to develop leaders and global citizens who have the essential skills needed to navigate an increasingly complex and polarized world. Among these essential skills are valuing cultural competency, developing global citizenship, and fostering political engagement — three areas in which girls’ schools are making great strides and must continue to do so.
A recently released study found that girls’ school graduates display higher levels of cultural competency, express stronger community involvement, and exhibit increased political engagement. For example, when asked about their ability to work and live in a diverse society, alumnae from all-girls' schools are nearly 10 percent more likely than their coed school peers to have the goal to help promote racial understanding. Girls' school graduates are also 10 percent more likely to find it essential to keep current with political affairs and to have political discussions in class and with friends.
6. What are the similarities you see at many of the girls’ schools you visit?
Though girls’ schools around the world are remarkably diverse, the common denominator is a commitment to girls’ education and being experts in how girls learn best. Regardless of a school’s location, size, or governance, at the heart of every girls’ school are core values that include community and collaboration, opportunity and innovation, leadership and integrity, and self-efficacy and agency.
Globally, girls’ schools engage the power of many voices to strengthen not only our schools but also the communities they serve and the world at large. Girls’ school educators create spaces that challenge limits so girls will imagine and explore new possibilities. All-girls schools in our network inspire the next generation of young women to lead with courage, competence, and empathy and prepare them for lives of commitment, confidence, contribution, and fulfillment.
7. What are the biggest changes you would like to see at girls’ schools in the next 10 years?
I would like for girls to no longer need to respond to the question, “Why a girls’ school?” because the relevancy of girls’ schools will be pervasive, more commonly understood, and widely acknowledged.
8. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions out there about girls’ schools?
It’s a myth that all-girls' school students are in a bubble that somehow renders girls ill-prepared for coed life. When in actuality, this could not be further from the truth.
Girls’ school students continue to live in a world that include boys and men — faculty in the classroom, coaches on the field, peers in extracurricular activities, friends and family at home. Building her confidence, collaborating on projects, and excelling in academics will prepare girls for a purposeful life.
In an all-girls' school, a girl can comprehend her value and her capabilities in ways that have nothing to do with how she looks. She can be free to experiment and explore, trying out new things and trying on new roles. She can follow her ambitions without wasting a second thought or a backward glance on how her male counterparts might perceive her.
9. What is your favorite aspect of the all-girls' environment?
At the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, we believe a school for girls is better than a school with girls.
Girls’ schools are places where girls take center stage: in everything. Girls occupy every seat in student government, every spot on the math team, and every position on the athletic field. By subtracting boys, an all-girls education adds opportunities for girls. Every aspect of a girls’ school — from the classroom to the community spaces to the academic program — is designed for girls.
Whether a girl wants to be an astronaut or an ambassador, an author or an attorney, girls need to know — not just think, but really know deep down — there is nothing that can stand in their way. That is the incredibly important message girls’ schools send to girls each and every day.
That message, embedded in the nature of girls’ schools, provides powerful, relevant advantages and creates the best environments for girls to learn, grow, and develop.
10. What would you say to someone who is on the fence about sending their daughter to an all-girls' school?
I encourage parents to consider these questions about their daughter’s current experience when they are on the fence about sending their daughter to an all-girls' school:
- Are girls engaged, called upon, and encouraged to participate equally in classroom activities?
- Are girls actively and equally involved in student leadership opportunities? Are girls elected as class presidents? Are they editors of the student newspaper? Are women in leadership positions on the faculty, administration, and coaching staff?
- Does the curriculum incorporate female authors and equally represent their contributions to history? Are women invited equally as guest speakers and visiting scholars to the school?
- Does her school value and support girls’ athletic teams as much as the boys’ teams? Are budgets, resources, and facilities equal?
- Do girls take, engage fully with, and excel in higher-level math, science, coding, engineering, and technology classes? Are there peer role models to help girls to “see it to be it” and envision themselves as makers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and engineers?
- Does her school have an atmosphere that fosters the confidence necessary for girls to pursue broader interests and take risks both inside and outside of the classroom? Do gender biases and assumptions impact course and extra-curricular selection and participation?
These are just a few sample questions that are good for parents to reflect on and think about as they are seeking the best school for their daughters.
Megan Murphy is the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools.