Girl Power: The Importance of Girl-Only Spaces

In the developmental years of adolescence, boys and girls go through significant biological and social changes that guide them into adulthood. In an effort to keep students healthy and engaged, thousands of middle schools and high schools around the nation invest in after-school programs that provide students with a platform to explore their interests. Even though student-programming is increasing, the gender bias in schools does not always adequately address girls’ needs as they go through significant changes in their development and environment.


The trend is certainly concerning. When girls begin first grade, they reportedly enter with comparable skills, interests, and ambition to boys. By 6th grade, 36% of girls say that they are self-confident, but by the time they finish high school, most girls have suffered a disproportionate loss of confidence in their academic and social abilities. In the classroom, students are presented with materials that lack female role models; for example, history books showcase a plethora of men and very few women.  In fact, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America reports that “unintentionally, schools collude in the process by systemically cheating girls of classroom attention, by stressing competitive – rather than cooperative – learning, b presenting texts and lessons devoid of women as role models, and by reinforcing negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities. Unconsciously teachers and school counselors also dampen girls’ aspirations, particularly in math and science” (Gilligan, Goldberger & Ward). It is 2014 and throwing, playing, and acting like a girl seems to be synonymous for weakness and inadequacy. It often seems today that young women are presented with two socially acceptable options: ascribing to limiting gender roles or rejecting femininity by adopting “masculine” traits.


Amidst these alarming statistics, there is absolutely hope for the positive development of young women today. Low self-esteem, poor body image, objectification, stress and unrealistic expectations seem to decrease when girls are part of healthy environments in which they are valued and heard. Girl-specific zones and gender-centered curricula is vital for school programming to implement, not with the intention of highlighting dominance of one gender over the other, but rather to cater to the different developmental changes and experiences girls and boys often go through as they mature. When women are part of a group in which they feel supported and empowered, there is a significant increase in confidence.


Girl-only spaces are essential because they provide a safe space for girls to voice their concerns and ideas. By being exposed to peers that are confident, capable and in other leadership roles, girls are inspired to look at their own capacities in a positive light. Healthy environments that allow peer-to-peer interaction to be positive and seen through an empowering lens supports girls in celebrating their strengths.  In fact, when young women are involved in girl-only spaces, such as sports teams, they are given the opportunity to pursue leadership roles.  


While there has been significant improvement over the past years with movements that encourage girl leadership, such as the Ban Bossy campaign, there’s still more to do. How do we create spaces for all girls to develop their strengths with an acute sense of self-awareness and belief in oneself? GENaustin’s programming focuses on supporting and guiding girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood. One of the core programs offered to girls is clubGEN, a space for elementary and middle school girls to express their concerns and struggles, always with the mission of building confidence and systems of support. By providing services through 16 clubGEN programs located throughout schools in Central Texas, GENaustin is making a difference in young girls’ lives. With activities that showcase girlhood in a positive light, girls are encouraged to embrace who they are. Because being a girl shouldn’t be so hard.

Vanessa Wright