Preparing Girls to Thrive in a Co-Ed World

Written by Linda E. Farley, Ed.D.

At GSHCC’s first annual Big Volunteer Conference last October, I had a chance to sit down with our keynote speaker, Dr. JoAnn Deak, to discuss the impact that single-gendered programming like Girl Scouts has on the lifelong well-being of women and girls.

Dr. Deak is an author and psychologist, specializing in neural psychology and gender research. Dr. Deak’s deep understanding of the female brain gives her a specialized insight into how we might better prepare girls for a lifetime of leadership.

When I asked Dr. Deak why she is such a vocal and committed advocate for all-girl schools and single-gendered programs like Girl Scouts, she explained that girls’ brains develop, function, and fire differently at a neurological level. This has very real educational and cultural implications for girls.

For example, in 2014, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used imaging technology to study differences in the brains of girls and boys. This study found that the “corpus callosum” –  the white-matter that functions as a bridge between the hemispheres of our brains — is significantly larger in girls than in boys, and remains this way throughout their lives.

What this means, Dr. Deak explained to me, is that “Female brains are wired to be bilateral. They go back and forth between hemispheres. They hardly ever just use one side of the brain, and so it oftentimes takes a hair of a second longer for a female to do something, to answer or to think. The male brain is almost always very unilateral. It’ll go to one side of the brain or the other. It doesn’t cross.” The unilateral design of the male brain makes it easier for boys to answer questions in class and make decisions more quickly than girls, regardless of intelligence or preparedness.

I asked Dr. Deak to explain why this difference is important. What does it matter? She told me that this neurological difference between girls and boys, along with other biological and developmental differences, has a strong impact on the gender dynamics of co-ed classrooms and learning environments. “If you have a 50-50 equal male and female representation in a classroom,” says Dr. Deak, “it basically becomes a male culture—it’s noisier, you’ll see more movement, you’ll see less organization, you’ll see less cooperation at 50-50. It isn’t until you start to raise the female ratio up to about 60 to 65 percent that you begin to see a change in the traditional male-directed culture.”

This made sense to me. It’s not good or bad; it’s whether we are aware of and paying attention to these dynamics.

One of the most commonly-cited arguments for co-ed programs is that girls need to learn to function in a co-ed world. In her work, Dr. Deak has found that “In a female’s life, whether you’re talking about a young girl or an adult woman, almost all of her time is in a world that’s co-ed.”

Dr. Deak uses what she calls “The Plant Metaphor” to put this in perspective. “Imagine I have two young, tender plants. One, I put in an environment with not enough water, nutrients, and sun. And one, I put in an enriching environment that has enough water and nutrients and sun. Then after six weeks, I put them both in a toxic environment. Which one’s going to survive? The one that during the growth of a sensitive time period was in an environment that helped it become as robust as it could be.”

“Look, if I’m in an environment where I’m the one who’s taking over, I’m the one who is stretching myself, then when you lift me up and you put me in a difficult environment, I have the wherewithal to handle it. All any of us is arguing for is for enough time of a somewhat richer environment for the growth of a human being.”

And this is where Girl Scouts comes into the picture. We provide that all-girl environment. That experience where girls can grow in an enriching environment that has “enough water and nutrients and sun.” Shouldn’t we ensure that every girl obtains this advantage in life?

I’m not arguing against coed spaces. On the contrary, I think they are very important just as I believe all boy settings are important for boys. Each of these environments gives children the chance to grow, to learn and to stretch in a space that accommodates their needs.

I felt the difference of an all-girl environment when I was a young Girl Scout. I felt the support of my sister Girl Scouts and I learned to speak up, express my opinion and lead. It was a very different experience than what I had at school. I am so very grateful that I was a Girl Scout for I truly gained confidence.

At Girl Scouts, we’re driven by a singular mission: to build girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place. My conversation with Dr. Deak reinforced my belief in the power of Girl Scouts to impact girls’ lives for the better. Our research-based program, our mentors, our focus on four key areas—STEM, the outdoors, life skills and entrepreneurship—and our all-girl setting are exactly what girls need to step into a lifetime of leadership in a co-ed world.

Thank you, Dr. Deak, for your years of research and thoughtfulness on this topic. We are inspired!

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