Thomas Jefferson’s elective courses continue to suffer from gender disparities that reflect nationwide divisions.
In the past few decades, Thomas Jefferson has emerged as a paragon of Denver’s high schools. From the introduction of the Center for Communication Technology program in 1994 to the establishment of Challenge Day in 2009, the school’s leaders have made great strides in nurturing an environment that promotes confidence, creativity, and equality. Unfortunately, as is the case with education across the nation, gender disparities endure. While core classes like English and Algebra exhibit a blend of genders, TJ’s electives display sharp incongruities where equality is concerned.
“Boys are scared to sing and put themselves out in that way. On the other hand, girls have a preconceived notion that only boys can do things with computers,” said Erin Thompson, a Spartan counselor, candidly summing up the circumstances. Her remarks reference the school’s music program—having a male choir almost a third of the size of its female counterpart—and the Center for Communication Technology, with classes like Software Engineering 1 at a striking 86% male composition. “Even if they are interested in [a class], they get nervous to even sign up for it,” Thompson posited. The current distribution of students mirrors the country: nationwide, only 8% of females earn technology credits in high school while the average school choir ensemble is only 30% male.
As the CCT Magnet Department Chair, Stacey Fornstrom is familiar with gender disparities in technology. “Traditionally, tech classes have had more males,” Fornstrom admitted. “We have worked hard over the years to try to narrow that disparity.” The program’s effort has not been in vain. TJ’s CCT class of 2019 seats only 16 females out of 66 students, but the class of 2022, this year’s batch of freshmen, boasts 47 girls out of a burgeoning class of 109. “We are still trying to narrow that gap because girls do very well in all facets of technology,” asserted Fornstrom. He noted the consequences of a lack of gender diversity in computer science. If 51% of the population is excluded from the tech industry, the entire enterprise will suffer from a conformity of viewpoints. It stands to reason that if women, like men, are stakeholders in technological advances, they too should have a hand in the industry that is revolutionizing the world. “Think of all the technology we’re missing out on,” Fornstrom speculated.
Sophomore Khadija Djebli, who has enjoyed a passion for coding for several years, noticed the gender disparity from the moment she entered her software engineering class. She found it difficult to form connections with her peers when there was such little representation of her gender. Still, Djebli does not want women to be daunted by the discrepancy. “I definitely encourage girls to take the software engineering class because it will really help in the long run.” Students in the class are often briefed on the applications of coding inside and outside of a career in technology. Fornstrom takes care to remind students that software engineering does not merely teach one how to operate computers, but develops creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
Junior Bianca Osorio, who took Coach Bill Burn’s weightlifting course last year, was well aware of the absence of girls in the class and decided to take it as an opportunity to grow socially. “I wanted to challenge myself because I knew I would not be as comfortable with the boys as I would be with the girls,” Osorio explained. Being the only girl in the class, Osorio had to use a separate locker room. She often had to wait for a separate P.E. class to finish for the girls’ dressing room to be unlocked so she could change. Though Osorio noticed the physical changes wrought by the program were different from her own, she was not discouraged. While Burns was uncompromising in his stipulation that students exerted their maximum effort, he personalized fitness goals for individuals students, grading them on improvement over time rather how much weight they could lift or how long they could run. “Everyone has what they are good at and what they are not. The coach would not judge you based on your gender, he would base it on what you did,” Osorio maintained.
The students and faculty are well aware of the school’s issues with gender disparities, but the actions that can best elicit a change are still up for debate. “Girls in [technology] classes do very well,” Fornstrom insisted. “It is just a matter of them getting the chance to try it.” He stressed giving young minds early exposure to fields they might otherwise overlook. The CCT program has begun communicating with middle school STEM teachers to identify students who are interested in pursuing a career in technology. As for other imbalanced classes, Thompson considered providing better descriptions of classes for freshmen to consider when choosing their classes. “A better synopsis about what the class entails could help kids if they are nervous so that they do not choose classes by name only,” Thompson theorized. Though she is frustrated with the gender disparities among classes, she recognizes that the counselors do not want to risk making schedule decisions that would place multiple students in classes in which they had no interest.
Though gender inequality is a universally pervasive issue, no platform is too insignificant to begin making changes. As with all matters of justice, communities cannot wait for worldwide policy changes before they revise their own customs. Students made free to choose their pursuits based on their passions rather than the determinants of social norms—a seemingly minor change—could improve the strides of accomplishment made in the professional world by leaps and bounds. Implications for careers aside, schools could bring the world one step closer to becoming a place where humans are directed by their hopes and aspirations, not by the confines of fabricated social standards.