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Closing The Gender Gap

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First, the good news. Nearly two decades after educators and experts first noted that girls lagged behind boys on science and math tests, a new report shows that girls have virtually caught up in those subjects.

Now, the bad news: Girls have caught up in other ways, too. They are smoking, drinking, and using drugs just as often as boys.

The report, published recently by the National Council for Research on Women, a New York City-based consortium of 77 research centers, suggests that, for better or worse, girls are breaking free of many gender stereotypes. At the same time, some of the problems that have long faced young girls remain. Although they are less likely than boys to commit suicide, adolescent girls are twice as likely to be depressed. And they continue to be the victims of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment in disproportionate numbers.

"A few policies are beginning to make a difference, but the number of areas that still need attention also suggests that we have a lot more work to do," says Linda Basch, the council's executive director.

The Girls Report: What We Know and Need To Know About Growing Up Female is based on a review of 200 studies, most of them conducted in the past five years; it was written by Linda Phillips, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The overall academic picture suggests that "girls appear to be doing considerably better than popular discussions would suggest," the report says. In 1996, for example, girls performed just as well as boys in math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated test given to nationally representative groups of students. The change has come about in part, Basch says, because of new programs and efforts aimed at increasing girls' participation in science and math.

Slight differences remain among top-achieving students in science, where 12th grade boys continue to outperform their female classmates. Girls also tend to like math less than boys, and they are more likely to attribute their difficulties in math to personal inability. When boys have difficulties in math, they are more likely to blame the subject matter.

In athletics, girls are participating in a wider range of sports and exercise more than ever, but they have yet to catch up to boys; 37 percent of high school athletes are girls, and the percentage of sophomore girls who take part in sports actually decreased, from 46 percent in 1980 to 41 percent a decade later.

Some of the research cited in the report also counters the perception--made popular chiefly by the work of Harvard University researcher Carol Gilligan--that girls lose self-esteem in adolescence. Black girls, in particular, seem to suffer no such loss. "While some girls may, indeed, go underground in adolescence, they also resist, speak out, and struggle to create the terms of their development," the report says.

As for the report's bad news--the increases in the percentages of girls who smoke, drink, and use drugs--some experts say they are not surprised. "In a culture that places value on things that men and boys do, it's understandable that more girls want to do things that boys do than boys want to do things that girls do," says Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "We need to be able to say, 'Wait, girls have strengths, and maybe boys should learn from girls, too.' "

Girls, however, also tend to smoke to control their weight. Thirty-four percent of adolescent girls consider themselves overweight, compared with 22 percent of boys, according to one survey.

The release of the council's report coincides with a backlash against the gender-equity movement of the last decade, and some observers were quick to criticize its focus on girls. "This report is continuing this obsession for the problems of girls and ignoring the problems of boys," said Judith Kleinfeld, a University of Alaska psychology professor. Kleinfeld's reaction wasn't entirely negative, though. She praised the document for pointing out data refuting the idea that girls are struggling in school.

Basch deflects the criticisms. Girls, she says, "have too long been neglected in research and policy debates and in their communities, so I don't think we can stop looking at them now--particularly when we see that some of the policies and programs are working.

--Debra Viadero

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