Equity & Diversity Opinion

Science, Math, and Girls

By Patricia B. Campbell & Beatriz Chu Clewell — September 15, 1999 10 min read
. . . Still a long way to go.

As the last school year drew to a close, stories began to appear in the national press suggesting that recent efforts to improve education for girls might better have been spent remedying the educational plight of boys. These articles in top-name newspapers were occasioned by the release of data showing that women now outnumber men in college enrollment. The implicit message was one (or both) of the following: Either girls have been well served by schools, or the educational disadvantages they once experienced are a thing of the past. As the writers of these press reports were quick to note, girls get higher grades than boys, do better in reading, and drop out of school at lower rates. Unacknowledged, however, was a fact auguring less well for girls'--and the nation’s--economic future: The gap between girls’ and boys’ achievement and participation in mathematics and science, though narrowing, is still there.

There is no question that boys should receive assistance from schools in the areas where they perform poorly. But we should reject the simplistic notion that because they are doing less well than girls in some respects, girls no longer need assistance in areas--such as math and science--where they are disadvantaged.

More than 25 years have passed since Title IX became law, yet efforts to equalize the participation of women in math, science, and engineering still engage the attention of educators, policymakers, and the general public. A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., and signed into law by President Clinton last fall provides for the establishment of a commission to study the status of women in science, engineering, and mathematics and to recommend policies to help address the barriers that prevent women, minorities, and persons with disabilities from pursuing careers in these fields. Last October, the American Association of University Women revisited its earlier study, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” with a report that describes progress made toward achieving gender equity since 1992 and identifies new issues that have emerged since then. Congressionally mandated reports on the status of women’s education are forthcoming from the the National Center for Education Statistics and the Women’s Educational Equity Act, and last May, the National Academy of Engineering held a two-day summit on strategies for improving the representation of women in that field.

This may be the right time to stand back and assess women’s progress in science and mathematics, identify the barriers that remain, and describe any new obstacles that have emerged.

While it is tempting to reduce gender issues in science and math to a bumper-sticker slogan (“The gender gap is closing”), reality is not that simple. Both girls and boys are more apt to be taking high school math and science courses, and there are few gender differences in who is taking those courses. Even in physics, girls’ participation has increased to 43 percent of enrolled students. The pattern is somewhat different in the rarefied air of Advanced Placement courses. About the same number of girls and boys take AP biology and AP calculus, but more boys take AP chemistry and many more take AP physics and AP computer science.

Achievement data are more complex. Math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are up, with 8th grade girls and boys scoring about the same, and 4th grade boys and 12th grade boys outperforming girls. At both these grade levels, boys are more apt to be at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels of achievement, while girls are more likely to be at the “basic” level. The SAT math gender gap remains intractable, even while overall math scores increase. In 1984, the gap was 41 points; 10 years later, it was 41 points. In 1996, when the SAT was renormed, the gap was 35 points--and there it remains. (In the meantime, boys have closed the gap favoring girls on the verbal section of the SAT.) In science, recent data showed no significant differences among 4th and 8th grade girls and boys, but 12th grade boys had higher scores than girls. As was the case in math, boys tended to be doing better than girls at the higher achievement levels.

Even larger than the achievement and participation gap between girls and boys are the gaps between white students and (with the exception of Asian-Americans) students belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups. Clearly, these gaps must be closed. But articles questioning the need for improving math and science education for girls because minority-group students are doing much worse tend to forget that half of these minority students are girls.

Teasing out gender differences within racial and ethnic classifications has been difficult because the data are so seldom presented this way. But when data are available, the findings are similar: Although at age 9 African-American and Hispanic girls and boys have similar scores in life sciences, physical sciences, and earth and space sciences, by ages 13 or 17 boys tend to gain or widen their advantage. Girls, on the other hand, maintain an advantage in the natural sciences through age 17, although it lessens from ages 13 to 17.

While the gender gap on SAT math scores is smaller among minority-group students, it exists nonetheless. For example, in 1996, African-American boys outscored girls by 15 points in math, while girls scored 5 points higher on the verbal portion of the test. In both percentages and absolute numbers, more African-American boys than girls scored at 1300 or above (out of a possible 1600) on the combined verbal and math sections of the SAT. More significantly, among African-American students who scored in the 75th percentile in math, boys scored 20 points higher than girls.

At the undergraduate level, the numbers of women and men in the “hard” sciences are going up, as is the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in science. In engineering, the number of women undergraduates is beginning to increase after years of decline, while the number of men continues to decrease. But even with recent gains, women’s share of bachelor’s degrees in engineering is only 17 percent. This pattern--the closing of the gender gap not because women are doing that much better but because men are doing worse--holds true at the graduate level as well. Women went from 25 percent of science graduate students to 31 percent; this was not just because 12,000 more women enrolled, but also because 9,000 fewer men entered graduate programs in science.

Moreover, gender disparities linger even after a degree in science or engineering has been attained. Only 18 percent of recent female science and engineering graduates now employed found jobs in science and engineering occupations, compared with 35 percent of their male counterparts. Except in computer science and engineering, starting salaries for female graduates entering science and mathematics fields in 1993 were only 85 percent of the salaries paid to male graduates.

So what’s really going on here? We have been successful in getting many more girls (and boys) to take more math and science courses in high school. At the same time, however, fewer of them are interested in choosing math and science as their life’s work, or even as a college major. Is this because we tell students that they don’t have to like math and science, they just have to take enough to get into a good college? That is what increasing numbers of students do: They take the courses and do OK, or even well, in math and science; but they aren’t engaged and they don’t--especially if they are girls--go on to math and science careers.

This lack of engagement in math and science may affect girls disproportionately because they are less likely than boys to get involved in science and math activities outside of school, from using meters and playing with electromagnets to fixing things and reading about technology. Words like passion and excitement and joy rarely come up in discussions of gender in math and science or of how to get more girls more involved. Yet without such emotions, why would girls, or anyone, go into these fields?

Nurturing girls’ passion for science and mathematics is not easy in our current society. Even when students are asked to draw a scientist, the vast majority of their drawings are of white men. Lurking behind these drawings is the disturbing myth of the math “gene.” This is the erroneous, but strongly held, perception that there is a genetic or biological basis for gender differences in math.

Although the British Royal Society and the National Research Council have found no convincing evidence of innate gender differences in mathematical ability, media reports of research “proving” such a difference surface with regularity. A careful reading of these often reveals that overenthusiastic reporters have hypothesized way beyond the data, but the damage is done. When genetics is used as an excuse for everything from unequal opportunities to unequal results, math is legitimized as a male domain. And girls who believe that “real girls don’t do math,” as Elizabeth Fennema found years ago, are less apt to continue in math or to do well in it.

Clearly, more research is needed to document the effectiveness of educational reform in increasing girls’ participation and achievement in math and science.

Some suggest that the current reform movements in math and science will resolve these gender issues. Launched by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ standards in 1989 and followed by the National Research Council’s science standards in 1995, reform efforts advocate instructional strategies such as hands-on science activities and small-group learning that are widely believed to help foster girls’ learning. Little research has been done, however, on how to link educational reforms to an increase in girls’ achievement levels.

One recent study of performance-based science classrooms in grades 5-8 found that although boys and girls earned similar grades, girls’ perceptions of their science abilities actually decreased over the year, in contrast to those of their male classmates. A second study found that even in the early years, boys were more apt to solve problems by developing their own rules, and girls were more apt to follow the rules of others. Clearly, more research is needed to document the effectiveness of educational reform in increasing girls’ participation and achievement in math and science.

Why does it matter that girls and women are underrepresented in science, mathematics, and engineering? The Third International Mathematics and Science Study raised our national awareness of the country’s vulnerability in competition with other nations. And most Americans have come to feel that excluding a large percentage of people in any group from prestigious, influential, and highly paid careers is unfair. But beyond these considerations is the fact that, by limiting the number of women in mathematics and science, we lose different perspectives that can enrich, expand, and revitalize these disciplines. We think that Rep. Morella was right when she explained that Congress has established the Commission on the Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development “to help ensure that our labor force is ready for the information age and that our high-tech economy continues to flourish in the 21st century.”

Women and girls have come a long way toward achieving full participation in science, engineering, and mathematics careers. But as the data show, they still have a long way to go. We do both boys and girls a disservice when we try to find easy solutions to hard problems.

Patricia B. Campbell is the president of Campbell-Kibler Associates in Groton, Mass., and a co-author of “How Schools Shortchange Girls” and “Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls,” both published by the American Association of University Women. Beatriz Chu Clewell is a principal research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, where she is also the director of evaluation studies and equity research in the Education Policy Center.

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