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IWD Blog: Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity: Progress for All March 8, 2010

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, For parents, girls in science, STEM pipeline efforts, women in science.
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Science Club for Girls is joining over 100 organizations across the world to Blog for International Women’s Day.

“The most notable fact that culture imprints on woman is the sense of our limits.  The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.”  Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born, 1976

Imagine a world where each child, no matter their country of origin, family background, physical or mental abilities etc is encouraged to develop to their full potential; where a girl growing up in urban Los Angeles or a boy in a rural Dong village in China are equally nurtured and educated so that each child’s personality and talents are developed to the fullest extent possible. This goes beyond even Roosevelt’s freedom from fear and freedom from want. Instead of depleting our social resources, we would all be the richer for it. Who knows, they may revolutionize the water sanitation system, discover the next vaccine for malaria, or develop the next mode of “green” transportation.

Equal rights, equal opportunity AND fair outcome are the foundation of a just society. Equal rights is a legal instrument that ensures that individuals are granted the same protections and entitlement as every other human being.  Juxtaposing equal opportunity and fair outcome gives us a benchmark to develop and measure the success or effectiveness of the programs and policies that we implement to make the abstract concept of equal rights concrete in our daily lives.

This is what Mary McGowan and Beth O’Sullivan set out to do fifteen years ago. A filmmaker and one of the few women who had studied mathematics at MIT, respectively, Mary and Beth were moved by family history, personal convictions, and by enlightened self-interest to create the Science Club for Girls.

SCFG seeks to create fair outcomes by targeting girls, especially those from racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups that have traditionally been left out of STEM, and indeed, higher education. One concrete way to ensure that these girls are able to access our program was to eliminate identifiable barriers–fees, scholarship applications and geography.  Clubs were situated where the children are–at the schools, at their churches, at community centers.

Parents of two young daughters at the time, Mary and Beth were members of the Gender Equity in Education Committee at the King Open School, a public school in Cambridge, MA, that created an “alternate” learning environment that took into account the individual circumstances of each student. King Open was incidentally the birthplace of the Algebra Project.

As a result of reading AAUW’s How Schools Shortchange Girls, Mary and Beth put into motion what would become the Science Club for Girls.

By making a high quality, hands-on science enrichment available to those girls who are least likely to have access, and pairing them with young women who are themselves pursuing studies and careers in science, these women pushed forward the final frontier for educational and economic equity for girls and women.

Through the lens of science and engineering, they opened up a new world for young girls, so they can make meaning, so they can be delighted, so they can imagine themselves and their future differently. The SCFG programs embraced the concept of the whole child, a concept proposed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but which only until recently, received scant attention in the broader debate on academic achievement.

But were these extraordinary individuals? The two very humble women would certainly not consider themselves so. But they do ascribe their convictions of the right to education to the example set by their fathers.

Edward McGowan was an immigrant and, although he had received very little education, he valued education highly. He never missed a parent’s meeting at school. He used to joke that he was a school “chairman” because he volunteered to set up the chairs in the auditorium for all the school assemblies.  “I can still remember him coming home late after working overtime at his factory and him taking a second job at the post office during Christmas, to earn money to pay for school for me and my brother”, said Mary.

Beth’s father, Tom O’Sullivan, was a pacifist and Civil Rights worker who, following the murder by the KKK of his best friend, the Reverend James Reeb, on the eve of Martin Luther King’s march on Selma, urged all of his children to dedicate themselves to causes of social justice. It is this deep commitment to the ideals of the civil rights movement that has spurred Beth’s own personal dedication to the Science Club for Girls.

This organic experiment taught important lessons about local solutions and about the power of individuals and community to do good. From two kindergarten clubs to an organization that serves over 800 students a year, these women have galvanized the Cambridge and greater Boston community–from parents to college students and academics to the women and men in STEM industries–to contribute meaning and joy to the lives of thousands of young girls.

About half of our graduates have gone on to major in science or engineering. One who’s parents imagined her working in a local drug store obtained her Bachelor’s in biology from Oxford and is getting a graduate degree in science. Another has turned down sports scholarships to ensure that she could go to a college with a good science program.

Beyond these academic achievements, however, it is our hope that the girls who come out of our program will be prepared to question the status quo, like our founders did, and contribute to building a world where equal rights are realized by creating equal opportunity with an eye towards fair outcomes.

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What does equal rights and equal opportunity mean to you?

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