An elementary school in Florida seems to be stuck in a time warp: They're holding a mother-son STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) event, complete with "awesome" experiments and ice cream, that girls are banned from attending -- because the girls are supposed to go to a father-daughter dance instead.
The Audubon Park Elementary PTA is set to host the event on November 13, and issued a flier inviting "mothers and sons" to "come enjoy awesome experiments in STEM presented by the Orlando Science Museum" while enjoying drinks and ice cream.
When a friend of Helena Zubkow, a 27-year-old web developer who lives in Orlando, posted on social media about how disappointed she was to learn that her son's school wouldn't allow girls to attend the STEM event, Zubkow was so disturbed about the apparent gender bias at play that she created a change.org petition demanding that the school include all of their students for STEM night.
"As a woman in tech myself, I was like, no way is this gonna happen," Zubkow told MTV News. Zubkow, who builds websites for large companies, said that being supported in her interest in STEM as a kid had everything to do with her ability to with her ability to build a successful career in tech.
"My dad is an electrical engineer," Zubkow said. "I won the science fair every year, and I had a lot of support, which I think is ultimately why I became successful in STEM ... I was also a preschool teacher for years, so education is very close to my heart."
Research has shown that girls are just as interested in STEM as boys until around middle school, when interest levels steeply decline -- mostly because gender bias leads parents, other students and even teachers to suggest, directly or indirectly, to girls that they're just naturally not as good as boys in these fields. Though this has been proven false again and again.
"Women in STEM fields are still outnumbered like crazy. In my C++ programming class in college, I sat down on the first day and I was the only girl in the class. The guy next to be looked over and he said, 'Oh, sorry, this is the C++ room,'" Zubkow continued. "We're still very unexpected in the tech field, and I'm really hoping that will change in the next generation -- but this generation's attitudes need to change to make that happen."
Jobs in STEM are among the most stable and highest-paying available. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM jobs and, according to the White House, "experience a smaller wage gap relative to men."
The White House also notes that "STEM careers offer women the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery and technological innovation. Increasing opportunities for women in these fields is an important step towards realizing greater economic success and equality for women across the board."
In her petition to Audubon Park Elementary, Zubkow noted that "when concerned parents pressed for answers, they were told that there was simply not enough room for all of the children, so they decided only to offer access to the event to the boys," and she told MTV News that parents in the school district have been trying to get the event to welcome girls too for months, but that the PTA has been "shrugging it off."
A number of commenters on the petition have suggested that if space is truly limited, the school should have opted to sell tickets on a first-come, first-served basis instead of banning girls. One commenter wrote, "My daughter goes to this school and is being denied the same opportunity given to my son."
The petition goes on to suggest that not only is the decision discriminatory and biased -- it's also illegal under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools and requires that boys and girls be provided with 'reasonably comparable' educational and extracurricular activities in the event that any father-son or mother-daughter activities are are planned.
"It appears that the school is using the wording of Title IX.8, as they have a 'father-daughter dance' scheduled as the 'reasonably comparable activity,'" the petition states.
"They're just not equivalent events," Zubkow told MTV News. "A father/daughter dance is a social activity that has no academic merit. This school system has a STEM program, and I'm sure that program will be featured at STEM night, where the girls won't be. This means the girls are missing out on a really important academic opportunity."
Update, Nov. 3, 6:00 p.m.: The Audubon Park Elementary PTA Executive Board provided MTV News with the following statement via email:
The purpose of this letter is to address concerns that have been raised in our community about an upcoming PTA event. We appreciate feedback and we are always glad to learn of others who share our passion for doing good for our children's school.Last year we had an overwhelmingly positive response to our Sweetheart (Father figure/daughter) dance. There has never been an event to create as much participation and excitement at our school. It was obvious to us that we needed to offer it again this year. We also learned from much feedback after that event that our community was eager for us to also offer an event for boys to attend with their mothers or special female figures (i.e. aunts, grandmothers, etc.). So, we sent a survey to the entire school, and we used the information we received in planning our events.
The school offers a quarterly STEM day during regular school hours and a STEM club after school every other week. In addition, the school will host a science night for all students on February 19, 2016.
To clarify points that you may have heard or read in the media:
- This is a PTA sponsored event and it therefore does not fall under the guidelines of the Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972.
- Girls were not excluded from this event. This is a social event intended to fulfill the request from our school community for a mother figure/son event. Girls would not be prohibited from attending the event if so desired.