It’s no secret that girls’ involvement in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) dwindles as they move through school. A 2016 study by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada found that although women outnumber men on college and university campuses in Canada, women make up only 39 per cent of undergrads in math and science programs, with that number dropping to 17 per cent for engineering and computer science.
This disparity in class attendance isn’t a result of intellect. Lack of confidence, encouragement and social acceptance of women in STEM-related disciplines are all said to contribute to the grossly disproportion number of boys in STEM classes in high school and college compared to girls.
There have been efforts to combat this trend, with books and programs designed specifically to help girls feel more comfortable pursuing their academic aspirations. But even for those who follow an academic and career path in STEM, family obligations, like pregnancy, child care or looking after an elderly parent often force women to either decrease their work load or step away from their career completely for extended periods of time.
A new article in The Atlantic is proposing a solution in the form of grade skipping. Allowing students, especially girls, to skip ahead in school when they are able to complete the coursework above their grade level allows women to enter post-secondary school earlier, therefore establishing their career in their early 20s rather than their early 30s, which can force women to make a choice between focusing on their career or raising a family.
Jane Charlton, a woman interviewed by The Atlantic, earned her Masters degree by 19 and had her PhD by 22. Charlton was a tenured professor at Pennsylvania State University when she had her first child in her late 20s, with tenure guaranteeing Charlton’s job would be held for her while she started her family. “By skipping grades and getting to grad school early, I could devote time and energy to building my career and earn tenure before I started raising a family,” says Charlton. “It was extremely beneficial to my career not to be devoting my 20s to anything else.”
While skipping grades is not common in Canada or the United States, the article points out that the US allowed for grade skipping during the Cold War in an effort to move the country’s brightest minds along to help with the war effort. The rise in educated adults increased living standards and led to an economic boom, although the practice became much less common following the end of the war.
The grade skipping discussion has two schools of thought, with one side worrying that advancing children past their peers may result in social and emotional issues if the child is exposed to more adult situations at a younger age. While this could be true for some, it’s definitely not the case for all advanced students.
On the other hand, Charlton says that skipping high school helped her social development as opposed to hindering it. “People my own age viewed me as peculiar. At 15, college was a better place for me. I was with my intellectual peers and I made good friends. And being successful at a very young age gave me the confidence and the capability to try new things.”