Equity & Diversity Opinion

Separate-Sex Science Shortchanges Students

By Jeffrey Weld — February 05, 1997 4 min read

Professional women scientists and engineers are outnumbered 6-to-1 by their male colleagues. Of the college degrees awarded for these fields, women earn only 30 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 21 percent of the doctorates. In high school, females constitute 39 percent of calculus students, and only 15 percent complete a physics course. According to a National Science Foundation study, the science achievement-test scores of college-bound females are consistently lower than the scores for males.

Yet, throughout the primary grades, math and science test scores for girls and boys do not differ significantly. This leads to the obvious question: What happens to create a gender gap in science beginning around age 13, and what can be done to narrow or eliminate it?

Have science educators been guilty of gender bias in the presentation of science and math coursework? Yes. Will separate-sex science and math classes ameliorate the imbalance? No. Segregating students on the basis of sex in order to close this chasm is a simplistic and dangerous Band-Aid approach. Learning research supports an integrated education in math and science.

An instructional strategy persists in too many science and math classrooms that allows for subtle gender bias, which is a disservice to female students. Boys have been found to dominate classroom discussion in these courses, garner the majority of teacher praise, and be subjected to higher performance expectations than girls (see Handbook of Research on Science Teaching and Learning, MacMillan Publishing, 1994). Moreover, the science role models depicted in textbooks, or invited to class as guest speakers--in fact, the very teachers themselves--are predominantly male.

But it hardly makes sense to segregate girls from boys in these courses, rather than attacking the problem at its core. That problem is a curricular and behavioral deficiency in the way science and math are taught. We’d do well to encourage enlightenment through workshops, conferences, and college courses that emphasize proactive gender- equity techniques for all teachers. It’s a safer and longer-term solution that places responsibility for inequity on the deserving shoulders of teachers, administrators, and parents, rather than on those of uprooted students.

Teacher enlightenment on the subtle behaviors that perpetuate gender bias in science is but one step toward closing the gap in science performance among boys and girls. Perhaps an even greater need is for teachers and parents to recognize that boys and girls learn in different ways, necessitating an appropriate overhaul of the curriculum.

Doreen Kimura, a Canadian neuropsychologist considered to be a leading authority on comparative studies of neural processes in males and females, says that “women and men differ not only in physical attributes and reproductive function, but also in the way in which they solve intellectual problems.” Unfortunately, the idea of “different” connotes “deficiency” in the minds of many, and valuable insight into how we might more effectively teach young men and women gets buried under an avalanche of political correctness. Ms. Kimura’s findings on the powerful influences of sex hormones on brain function, coupled with behavioral research into instructional strategies that benefit girls as much as boys, point toward the need for dramatic change in how science and math are predominantly taught in American schools.

Susan McGee Bailey, the executive director of Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women and the principal author of the American Association of University Women’s landmark study, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” points to specific remedies for a gender-neutral classroom that are consistent with Ms. Kimura’s brain re-search and do not require segregating students. Two of those recommendations are fairly simple: (1) Place less emphasis on competition and speed, and more emphasis on cooperative group work; and (2) increase the focus on practical, real-life applications of mathematics and science.

These and other interventions that focus on problem-solving in a social context are more than just gender-neutralizing techniques in science; they are sound methods that work for all learners and mirror the recommendations of the recently released National Science Education Standards.

It hardly makes sense to segregate males and females in science and math courses when a better way is to restructure the curriculum to reflect the research. In a sense, the onus for closing the gender gap in math and science is placed upon kids by advocates of separate-sex classes, when the onus should be borne by teachers, administrators, and parents, who can and should see to it that science is portrayed as equally accessible to all.

As imperfect as coeducational classes may be, they represent real life. The children in those classes rise to a level of expectation we hold for them. So it’s vital that the message they get is one of high expectations, without contrived settings and regardless of sex.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1997 edition of Education Week


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