The sound of breaking glass

A forward-thinking educational program encourages young female students to pursue the sciences.

Mikve Israel Youth Village girls at IAI (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mikve Israel Youth Village girls at IAI
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is known as the Start-Up Nation, a land where the entrepreneurial and technological spirit drives major scientific breakthroughs and advances.
Who stands behind these innovations? Well, mostly men. When it comes to the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, women fall far behind – even in Israel.
One program, “Cracking the Glass Ceiling,” aims to change this reality by promoting and encouraging the younger generation of outstanding female students from the social periphery to pursue matriculation certificates in the sciences.
“Not every student is able to fulfill their true potential, and many female students drop out of the matriculation exams for the sciences, despite their abilities and academic excellence. This program was born to change this situation,” says the program’s director, Odea Dori.
Launched by Kol Israel Haverim – the Israeli branch of Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris-based international Jewish organization promoting Jewish education and social values – the program aims to raise the bar for girls’ aspirations to pursue studies in the STEM fields.
“One of the most amazing things that I experienced as I came into the program is that in this day and age, girls still think there are things they can’t do, because there is a model of ‘what a woman should do,’” says Dori. “This program teaches them that every girl can do whatever she wants; they can get accepted into university and they can pursue careers – not only in science, but at least the door will be open for them to choose whatever suits them.”
Some 700 students in 15 schools throughout the country – including in Bat Yam, Netanya, Kiryat Gat, Pardess Katz and the Mikveh Israel youth village – are currently participating in the program, now in its fifth year.
Each participating school chooses top academic- achieving female students in eighth grade to take part in the framework, which runs throughout high school until 11th grade.
“Girls with a scientific and realistic orientation whose school wants to help them persist in studying these fields are selected for the program,” says Mikveh Israel principal Dr. Tali Plotkin on her school’s website.
Mikveh Israel was one of the first high schools to participate and today has over 100 female students in eighth through 11th grade pursuing STEM studies.
“The goal of the program is to teach the female students not to give up, to fight the difficulties and especially to believe in their own abilities,” Plotkin writes.
It also focuses on “preventing them from dropping out [of STEM studies] and showing them the outlook for academic studies and professional research in these fields at the highest possible level.”
Cracking the Glass Ceiling works with the girls in four simultaneous tracks: personal and gender empowerment, role modeling, enrichment, and academic excellence.
“We want to reach these top students in eighth grade and ensure we see these same students in 11th grade,” adds Dori.
Students participate in group seminars about empowerment on a personal level in eighth grade, and gender empowerment in ninth grade.
“The goal is to first build their self-confidence and then discuss how women face social inequality,” says Dr. Sary Weiss, coordinator of the program at Mikveh Israel.
According to Weiss, the students participate in seven group seminars per year, discussing the differences between the traditional societal roles of men and women, sexuality, and the way inequality is reflected and experienced in everyday life.
“In 10th grade we incorporate the male students into the seminars, because without the boys’ understanding of what this project is, we have lost half of the population, and the idea is to create a societal change,” explains Weiss.
In addition, the participants take field trips to leading scientific research facilities, such as the Weizmann Institute of Science, Google, Microsoft Israel and Intel, where they can see firsthand the possibilities available for scientific careers.
The program also provides practical academic and personal support in the STEM fields for the participating students. The girls receive private tutoring in mathematics and other fields, and their grades are routinely monitored to ensure they maintain high academic performance.
“This program... teaches the girls to adapt and operate and even change this system [of inequality] – and not only the girls; the program raises awareness among the teachers, other students, basically the entire school,” explains Weiss.
“There is talk about the program, and this is the most important thing in my opinion, because where there is talk there is change,” she adds.
Another key component of the project involves introducing the girls to female role models in the sciences.
Each participating school is “adopted” by a hi-tech company, such as Amdocs, Cisco, Elop, Israel Aerospace Industries or Elisra. The students then get to meet the female role models within the company – successful scientists, researchers and managers.
Throughout the program, these women accompany the students, meeting with them on a regular basis and serving as mentors.
“There is an intimacy and a comfort that develops between the professionals and the students, that allows the girls to ask personal as well as professional questions. It is amazing that the girls at this age worry about having a family and a career, and they are able to ask the women about these issues,” says Dori.
Though the project is only in its fifth year, its impact on the students is already evident.
According to Dori, in the 2012-13 academic year, 87 percent of the girls who began the program in eighth grade chose to continue their high school matriculation exams in at least one scientific subject, and 46% chose two scientific subjects. Furthermore, 91% of the girls chose to pursue four or five units, the most advanced levels of the high-school mathematics matriculation exam.
“I have already begun to see a change in the way the girls think and what they choose to study,” says Weiss.
“They think more about the sciences; they suddenly debate between studying sciences and humanities – something they never did before.”