Foundations Respond to Critique of Girls’ Education

By Meg Sommerfeld — October 07, 1992 8 min read
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“What we’ve learned, after almost 20 years of working on gender-equality issues in precollegiate education,’' she said, “is that girls and women have special needs, and unless funds are given and programs are done which take those needs into consideration, girls don’t automatically benefit.’'

The survey, “The A.A.U.W. Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls,’' commissioned by the American Association of University Women, was a lengthy synthesis of two decades of research on girls in public education. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1992).

The report faulted the way teachers deal with girls, found inherent “gender bias’’ in curricula and standardized tests, and criticized the tracking of girls away from traditionally male-dominated fields of study.

Among its 40 recommendations were a call for more research on girls’ achievements in mathematics and science, and a more central role for girls and women in education reform.

Some members of the philanthropic community concerned with girls’ and women’s issues say the release of the report was a key incident in a year that saw increased public awareness of sexual harassment in schools and the workplace, widely publicized assault and rape cases, and the appearance of several books about gender issues on the best-seller lists.

The report “was a wake-up call for a el15llot of people,’' said Mary Leonard, the director of precollegiate programs at the Council on Foundations.

“I think [gender equity was] an issue that most people were not really focusing on, because they were looking at school reform and the big picture,’' she said. “The disparities between what boys and girls get are more subtle.’'

Some Early Effects

Thus far, observers admit, it is difficult to assign a dollar amount to the effect the report has had. They suggest that the slow nature of grant-making cycles means it will be several years before it is known whether foundations are allocating more funding for girls’ programs.

They draw a contrast with the political world, where fund-raisers for this year’s high-profile women candidates report a tremendous surge in donations that many attribute to concern for maintaining abortion rights and to criticism of the U.S. Senate’s handling of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings.

Still, observers say, the áŸáŸõŸ÷Ÿ report has had some visible impact on the philanthropic world already.

One indicator of its effect may be the A.A.U.W.'s own success in obtaining private-sector support to disseminate the report’s findings. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Corporation and Allied Signal, an aerospace- and automotive-engineering corporation in Morristown, N.J., co-sponsored a “national summit’’ of education leaders in Washington the day the report was released, and the Kellogg Foundation has helped underwrite the distribution of the report.

Since then, A.A.U.W.. chapters in 40 states have found it “quite easy’’ to obtain $5,000 and $10,000 contributions from businesses to conduct round tables for educators, business leaders, and policymakers to discuss gender-equity issues, said Anne Bryant, the executive director of the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation.

“I think what we’ve seen is particularly the women who work in foundations and corporations have picked up on not only our study, but on the issues of gender equity in the workplace and in higher education,’' Ms. Bryant said.

‘Good Documentation’

Observers point to a growing amount of activity on gender issues on the horizon:

  • The New York-based Ms. Foundation, established by Gloria Steinem in 1972 when she founded the magazine of the same name, is setting up a collaborative of 10 to 20 funders to collectively commit $3 million toward its “National Girls Initiative.’'

The project, which has been in the planning stages since 1991, received a seed grant of $150,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in January. The two-pronged initiative will include a public education campaign and a grant-making component, through which Ms. will award $5,000 to $10,000 grants to community programs that help develop girls’ self-confidence and challenge sex-role stereotypes.

  • With a $127,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, the National Council for Research on Women is working with Women and Foundations/Corporate Philanthropy, an affiliate of the Council on Foundations, and the National Network of Women’s Funds to establish a research agenda on funding for girls and women’s programs.
  • A number of conferences on the subject will be held this fall, including one at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread center in Racine, Wis., hosted by the Center for Women and Philanthropy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The report’s findings have also proved valuable to nonprofit groups that focus on girls’ and women’s issues and to the membership of the National Network of Women’s Funds, by drawing attention to their work and boosting their credibility.

“This has been good documentation for what some of the needs are .. and what some of the problems are,’' said Carol Mollner, the executive director of the network, which includes 52 regional funds that awarded more than $5 million to grassroots programs targeted to girls and women last year.

Because the assets of these funds are small compared with those of community and private foundations, said Ms. Mollner, the report’s data are also a useful tool for raising awareness among other grant-makers.

Some Reluctance Remains

Many foundation officers are still reluctant to fund programs for girls, said Ms. Bryant of the A.A.U.W., because they tend not to believe that sex discrimination still occurs.

“Most foundations don’t deal with the issue of gender,’' said Mary Ellen S. Capek, the executive director of the National Council for Research on Women. “They don’t believe .. that discrimination really exists, or if it did once, it doesn’t anymore.’' In fact, she said, having the words “women’’ or “girls’’ in an organization’s name or in its project title can still be “the kiss of death’’ for a grant proposal.

Often, programs for girls are seen as “add ons,’' said Walteen Grady Truely, the recently appointed president of Women and Foundations/Corporate Philanthropy.

“I think there’s still a sense that women, although we are 50 percent of the population, are a special-interest group and therefore marginal to society,’' said Ms. Truely, who had served for the past two years as the director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund’s equal-education-rights project.

Women and Foundations cited the A.A.U.W. report in a study it released last spring on the status of funding for girls’ and women’s programs. (See Education Week, May 6, 1992). That report found that in 1990, approximately 4 percent of all grants included in the Foundation Center’s grants index were designated for programs specifically benefiting women or girls. Of the $175 million awarded to elementary and secondary schools that year, $6 million, or 3.9 percent, went to girls’ programs.

“In the education-reform movement there’s a general sense that schools need to be changed, and we see foundations giving money to support [that],’' noted Ms. Truely. “Unfortunately, few of those education-reform proposals focus specifically on the needs of women and girls.’'

‘Look at All Students’

But while the A.A.U.W. and Women and Foundations, among other groups, have called for a greater proportion of grants to go for girls’ and women’s programs, others question that approach.

“I think it’s more important to look at all students, not just girls,’' said Alicia Coro, the director of school-improvement programs in the U.S. Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education.

“There may be disadvantaged kids, not just females, who need special attention,’' she continued. “I don’t think they need to be separated, as long as those kids who are disadvantaged get the help that they need.’'

Advocates of targeted funding say that although more dollars are already being systematically set aside for girls than for boys, the funding levels are still inadequate because girls and women as a population group are disproportionately affected by poverty, child abuse and domestic violence, rape, eating disorders, and teenage parenthood, among other social problems.

Along with the A.A.U.W. report, they cite such earlier studies as “Reflections of Risk,’' a 1990 survey of 36,000 Minnesota secondary school students conducted by the Minnesota Women’s Fund. That study found higher rates of physical and sexual abuse, depressed states, attempted suicides, and negative self-images among girls than boys.

Not Automatically Served

Another major reason girls’ programs need more funding, advocates say, is that boys tend to benefit more than girls from grants directed for general youth programs.

“I think often foundations who give money to public education assume that because they’re giving funding, and because 50 percent of the school population is girls, that their money will have a generally equal impact that will benefit all students within the school population,’' said Ms. Truely of Women and Foundations.

“What we’ve learned, after almost 20 years of working on gender-equality issues in precollegiate education,’' she said, “is that girls and women have special needs, and unless funds are given and programs are done which take those needs into consideration, girls don’t automatically benefit.’'

Ms. Leonard of the Council on Foundations speculated that the report’s greatest impact might not be in boosting the proportion of targeted funding, but in prompting funders to scrutinize whether their general grant-making is having an equal impact on girls and boys.

Foundations may also decide not to fund groups that do not have a representative proportion of women on their staffs or boards, Ms. Leonard said.

“You don’t see a lot of programmatic change, but within programs people can ask ...if girls are showing up in the program at the same percentage levels as boys, and if not, why not,’' she observed.

“A foundation that’s looking at a grant proposal,’' Ms. Leonard added, “can serve as a catalyst by asking those questions and waiting until they get a suitable answer to make the grant.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 1992 edition of Education Week as Foundations Respond to Critique of Girls’ Education


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