Across the United States, women have made significant gains.
Women hold more seats in Congress when compared to the previous five years. They’re launching businesses at a rate more than twice the national average, according to the Small Business Administration. And, this year, a record number of female CEOs are expected to lead Fortune 500 companies, according to Fortune magazine.
In North Carolina, the country’s future women are forging new ground too, according to Meredith College’s 2017 report, The Status of Girls in North Carolina.
Girls enjoy high graduation rates. They’re more likely than in previous years to play high school sports. And, about two-thirds of high school student government officers are girls.
But the report, written by Amie Hess, associate professor of sociology, and a team of Meredith students, doesn’t paint an entirely rosy picture of their lives. There have been setbacks for girls in North Carolina, just as there have been hurdles for U.S. women.
“There’s much reason to be hopeful,” Hess said, “but there’s also reason not to rest on our laurels.”
Good news, bad news
The 2017 report comes four years after Meredith’s original Status of Girls in N.C. report, initiated by President Jo Allen soon after she took the helm at her alma mater. The fact, Allen said, that nobody had done it before is a clear reminder of how invisible girls can be in society.
“Within a few short years, we’re hoping they are going to be Meredith students,” she said. “But whether they are or not … the health, safety, and wellbeing of girls and women are really important barometers of the measure of the health, safety, and wellbeing of the whole society.”
Like the first edition, the new report covers topics such as demographics and poverty; education; media engagement; and health. This year’s version also tackles LGBT youth and juvenile crime and victimization while featuring community groups that are making a difference.
The report highlights where North Carolina girls are making strides and areas where they need a boost.
Researchers found, for instance, that while girls continue to perform on par academically with boys, they make up only 25 percent of students in Advanced Placement physics and computer science courses.
North Carolina girls are less likely to be identified as juvenile offenders when compared to boys, but they are more likely to be victims of bullying and sexual violence.
They are watching less TV than in the past, but that decrease is matched by an increase in their use of computers and other electronic devices.
And, though they are more likely to be involved in high school sports compared to a decade ago, their rate of obesity – which held steady for the past decade – is on the rise.
Racial disparities stark
The report also outlines the stark disparities between white girls and their African-American, Latina, and American Indian counterparts.
The poverty rate of African-American, Latina, and American Indian girls, for instance, is nearly double that of white girls. African-American and Latina girls are more than twice as likely as their white peers to make a serious suicide attempt.
When it comes to short-term suspensions in the state’s five largest school districts, African-American girls are more likely to be suspended than even white young men and boys.
“Black males are more likely to receive serious punishments that result in losing educational time – more likely than any other group,” Hess said. “But the gap between black young women and white young women is greater than the gap in black young men and white young men in the five largest school districts across the state. That was kind of a shocker for me.”
She added, “It’s something for administrators to think about. ‘What can we do to support these students and keep them in their classrooms?’”
‘Uniqueness of Meredith’
To create this year’s report, Hess pulled together nine students to take part in an intensive research class during the fall 2016 semester.
Two of those students, Katherine Sills and Melissa Jenkins, also helped Hess during the summer break. They pored over the original report, surveyed high schools, and looked for new content areas. Once the semester began, the class got to work, updating data, uncovering new information, and writing the report.
“Students were involved in the original report,” Hess said. “We knew we wanted to continue that aspect. It’s in keeping with the mission of Meredith and keeping with the goal of the report as well – to empower girls.”
Sills, a 22-year-old senior, worked primarily on the report’s LGBT section, which proved tricky as there was little data to analyze.
Sills, however, was able to glean some information. The report says that LGBT students are twice as likely as heterosexual students to report feeling unsafe at school, but, in some parts of the state, there is little school support for them, including comprehensive anti-bullying policies, gay-straight alliance student clubs, and curriculum that includes positive representation of LGBT people.
“It was kind of disheartening,” said Sills, a sociology and criminology major, “but it also showed that we need to do better as a state to help this community out.”
Cameron Ruffin, a 20-year-old junior, helped pull together the criminal justice section. Ruffin, a criminology and sociology major, said she was surprised how invested she became in the work.
“Women and girls are marginalized populations,” Ruffin said. “This gave us an opportunity to bring light to a group of people who fly under the radar. This research speaks to the uniqueness of Meredith. Because we are such a small school, you can build a rapport with your professors and work with them hands-on.”
Community groups and agencies used data from the original report to make decisions about where to place resources and what new programs to develop. The updated version will offer new information as those groups and others work to make a difference.
For one of those groups, Girls on the Run, which uses running as a vehicle for character development and empowerment for girls in third to eighth grade, the original report validated their work and provided data to share with funders, parents, and school administrators about why it’s important.
“This data is showing us that girls’ physical activity drops in this time frame and we have a program that makes physical activity interesting, social, and engaging,” said Juliellen Simpson-Vos, executive director of Girls on the Run of the Triangle. “It just really buoys us and supports the rationale for our program.”
Simpson-Vos is eager to dive into the new report. At Meredith, Allen, Hess and the student researchers are eager to see how groups and agencies use the data to bolster girls.
“There are important ways that we can interrupt patterns of poverty, of obesity, of low self esteem, physical inactivity, social bullying, all kinds of things,” Allen said. “We know how to do so much. Now, we need to recognize the extent of the problem and put ourselves on the front lines to address them.”
Added Allen, “It doesn’t get better until you put a spotlight on it.”