Equity & Diversity

N.Y.C. Vocational Programs Shortchange Girls, Women’s Group Says

By John Gehring — September 05, 2001 3 min read
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The New York City board of education operates a “separate and unequal” system of vocational education that offers girls training inferior to that of boys, the National Women’s Law Center has charged in a letter sent to the city’s schools chancellor.

The Washington-based advocacy group for women’s legal rights contends that the nation’s largest school system has failed to offer female students the same career education possibilities it gives their male peers.

“For decades, the board has failed to solve the problem of gender disparities in its vocational system, while the gulf between the vocational education provided to male and female students continues to widen,” the Aug. 16 letter to Chancellor Harold O. Levy says.

The district’s failure to update the curricula for female students at the city’s 18 vocational-technical high schools violates Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal money, the group alleges.

Karen Finney, the director of communications for the New York City school board, said the chancellor takes the law center’s concerns seriously.

Many of Mr. Levy’s efforts to improve the 1.1 million-student school system, she said, have already begun to improve the quality of education offered across the school system. Mr. Levy became chancellor in 2000.

Outdated Programs

The law center says that 13 of the city’s 18 vocational-technical high schools are highly segregated: Four have enrollments that are more than 70 percent female, nine have enrollments that are more than 70 percent male, and three are more than 90 percent male.

The vocational education programs at those schools reflect long-standing gender stereotypes, the law center maintains, noting that the four predominantly female schools offer programs leading to traditionally female, generally lower-paying jobs in such areas as cosmetology, clerical support, medical assistant, and fashion.

But the nine vocational schools with more than 70 percent male enrollments offer more than 20 distinct programs in the higher-paying fields of engineering and technology, the group says.

The board of education, it says, administers programs offering industry certification in computer networking at five predominantly male vocational schools, but none at predominantly female vocational schools.

The law center also pointed to disparities in Advanced Placement classes in the city’s vocational schools. Schools that are at least 70 percent male offer an average of three AP courses per school, compared with an average of one AP class for schools that are 70 percent or more female.

None of the four predominantly female vocational schools, including those schools that seek to prepare students for careers in health or business, offers any AP courses in calculus, statistics, biology, chemistry, physics, or computer science.

“The numbers tell a story about the opportunities afforded to boys and girls,” Barbara Burr, the law center’s general counsel, argued. “It’s a pattern we see repeated across the country.”

The charge of inferior vocational programs for female students in New York City comes at a time when vocational-technical high schools nationwide are producing a dearth of female students who move on from career and technical programs to earn college degrees that could lead to potentially higher-paying employment in fields like technology. (“Not Enough Girls,” from Technology Counts 2001: The New Divides, May 10, 2001.)

The U.S. Department of Education reports that in 1998, women received 27 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science, down from a high of 37 percent in 1984.

Even if girls do not face overt discrimination in schools, advocacy groups say that work remains to be done in lifting the subtle barriers that still limit young women. Those roadblocks, they say, include traditional attitudes of some teachers about appropriate careers for women and the use of outdated school counseling material.

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