Educators Revisit Girls’ Loss of Math, Science Interest

By Sean Cavanagh — May 03, 2005 9 min read
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Researchers, psychologists, and educators have spent years trying to decipher the riddle of nature vs. nurture, and when the topic is male and female students’ abilities in math and science, the arguing never stops.

Girls’ seeming loss of interest in the subjects as they move from elementary school through graduation—even as their overall achievement in those areas has risen—has long vexed administrators, teachers, and others. Now, many educators are re-examining the issue, as the fallout persists from comments by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers on the relationship between gender and aptitude.

In a speech at a conference on women and minorities in science and engineering in January, Mr. Summers addressed the issue of the dearth of tenured women professors in those areas at top universities. He speculated that differences in “intrinsic aptitude” between males and females, particularly among the highest-achieving performers, could be a potential cause for that shortage, among other reasons.

While his remarks were directed at the postsecondary world, they underscored the frustration of many precollegiate educators over what they see as the real issue: the tendency of girls to become less attracted to science and mathematics as they progress in school.

That topic was a theme at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ annual meeting, held in Anaheim, Calif., last month. Encouraging young women to stay interested in math—the backbone of many science disciplines—requires teachers to work to dispel stereotypes about who can do well in that subject and related fields, some at the gathering said.

Middle-Grades Drop-Off

“Math, as a discipline, opens and shuts more doors for men and women than any other content area we’ve got,” NCTM President Cathy L. Seeley said in an interview. “Whether it’s in science, engineering, or technology, … it’s tremendously important that a person be well-armed with math if they’re going to have options in their lives.”

The Gender Gap

Average Scores on the 2004 Advanced Placement tests show male students outperforming their female counterparts in several math and science exams, in which the maximum score is 5.

Boys Test Girls
3.23 Biology 2.90
3.09 Calculus AB 2.82
2.91 Computer science A 2.48
2.84 Physics B 2.37
2.94 U.S. history 2.69
2.78 French language 2.75
2.96 English literature and composition 2.98

The waning enthusiasm among girls for math and science becomes most noticeable in middle school, many observers say. That disinterest has shown up on numerous reports, such as the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, two widely publicized international studies.

At the high school level, boys achieve higher scores on several measures of academic achievement in math and science, such as Advanced Placement exams.

By the time they enter college, many young women have less appetite for the more technically oriented areas of science, data suggest. Forty-four percent of incoming male freshmen who intended to major in science chose engineering as their initial focus, compared with only 12 percent of females, federal data from 2002 show. Fifteen percent of the men chose computer science, compared with 3 percent of the women.

Women showed far more interest in the social and behavioral sciences and in the biological and agricultural sciences than their male counterparts did, according to that data.

It’s not that girls aren’t using math or high-level science skills, some academic experts say. “They’re using it for different things,” said Pamela Davis-Kean, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, in Ann Arbor, who has studied gender issues.

Some researchers speculate that young women may shy away from more technically oriented science fields, such as engineering, because they regard those disciplines as providing few opportunities for social interaction. Societal influences, and other factors, may lead girls to value more group-oriented activities and work, those scholars suggest.

Bias a Factor?

Studies show that girls also have less confidence in their math and science abilities, and take less enjoyment from those subjects, than their male peers. Those self-doubts emerge despite the fact that girls, on average, consistently receive higher grades than boys in both math and science.

“Why do they think they’re not good at it, even when they’re getting A’s and B’s?” said Ms. Davis-Kean, who is completing a study that examines math grades of male and female students.

JoAnne B. Rodkey, the principal of Woodward Avenue Elementary School in DeLand, Fla., noticed a lack of assertiveness among girls in math and science and took steps to correct it. After seeing boys outperform girls in the two subjects—and vice versa in reading—on standardized tests, the school, a part of the 64,000-student Volusia County district, last year divided a portion of its student population at three grade levels into single-sex classes. She reasoned that the separation might improve performance.

“They don’t take as many risks,” Ms. Rodkey said of elementary school girls. “If they don’t know the answer, they don’t raise their hands. They want to know they’re right. … The boys will raise their hands, even if they don’t know the answer.”

Some people say that girls are subtly, and often unintentionally, discouraged from pursuing careers in math and science by parents, teachers, and classmates. For years, adults suggested that girls were better suited to careers as nurses or secretaries, rather than as engineers or computer scientists, said Ruta Sevo, the program director of research on gender in science and engineering at the National Science Foundation, in Arlington, Va.

“There are unconscious biases and projections of stereotypes,” Ms. Sevo said. “Girls can internalize those—‘I don’t need math; I’m not good at math.’ ”

Those stereotypes can be conveyed even if the teachers are female, she added. About 67 percent of middle school and 49 percent of high school teachers of math and science are women, according to recent estimates.

As Ms. Sevo and others point out, many of the long-standing gaps in academic achievement between girls and boys in math and science are closing. From 1990 to 2003, girls’ math and science scores at various grade levels were generally only slightly lower than boys’ on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In addition, girls are now more likely than boys to have taken several math and science courses by the time they graduate from high school, including geometry, Algebra 2, biology, precalculus, and chemistry, according to 2004 federal data. Boys are still more likely than girls to take physics and calculus.

But among the top-performing students on NAEP, the gap between boys and girls in math and science widened slightly. That pattern has also showed up in other research, and was noted by Harvard’s Mr. Summers in his speech.

Differences at Issue

“It’s problematic. We don’t really understand it,” said Joanne Rossi Becker, a professor of mathematics at California’s San Jose State University, who has studied gender differences in that subject. She speculated that girls tend to do better on problem-solving exercises, while boys tend to perform better on the sort of computational and multiple-choice questions found on many exams.

In trying to cultivate girls’ enthusiasm for math and science, some researchers argue, educators need to acknowledge basic genetic differences—namely, that brains are organized differently in males and females. Partly because of those differences, they say, boys and girls learn in different ways, and teachers should adjust accordingly.

Mr. Summers suggested that a “different availability of aptitude” among the highest-achieving men and women was a factor in the lack of women in tenured university science positions—perhaps more of a factor, he said, than discrimination.

Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist, disputes that assertion. But he believes that distinct genetic differences exist in the way male and female brains function, and that educators who adhere to a gender-blind approach actually end up discouraging young women in such courses as physics, calculus, and trigonometry.

In his book Why Gender Matters, published earlier this year, Mr. Sax describes how boys, during a lesson on geometry and number theory, appear to benefit from a straightforward presentation of numbers from the beginning. But girls use a different portion of the brain to perform those exercises, one that is more connected to language and other functions, he says. Teachers should instead focus on more of a “real world” explanation of the numbers, he writes, in teaching females.

“Everything you do needs to be different, if you want to make math, physics, and computer science girl-friendly,” Mr. Sax asserted in an interview.

He suggests that teachers use other gender-specific strategies. Girls tend to benefit when teachers look them in the eye during lessons, Mr. Sax maintains—a gesture that, he says, can be regarded as threatening by boys.

To meet the different needs of the sexes in a single class, teachers have to work “twice as hard,” Mr. Sax acknowledged. That realization, he said, is part of what led him to found the National Association for Single-Sex Education, based in Poolesville, Md.

But others, such as Elizabeth S. Spelke, a Harvard University psychology professor, say there is scant evidence that differences in the structure of the male and female brains affect the way that the two sexes learn math, science, or other subjects. Ms. Spelke also discounts the idea that girls are more social than boys in their approach to learning.

A Menu of Approaches

“We don’t have a male brain or a female brain; we have a human brain,” she said, “with a whole lot of commonality.”

Some educators, meanwhile, see a need for teachers to take a strong role in keeping both boys and girls keen on math and science. Ms. Rossi Becker of San Jose State, who has helped arrange workshops at her university to encourage girls to stay interested in math and science, advises teachers to offer students a mix of male and female role models who have succeeded in those fields. They should also make sure that girls take an active part in math and science classes, she said, in light of boys’ tendency to be more assertive in such settings.

The NSF’s Ms. Sevo encourages teachers to use more hands-on experiments and group activities in science classes, and to try to show the subject’s potential to solve real problems—an approach she believes is more likely to appeal to girls.

To Ms. Seeley, the NCTM president, a diverse menu of classroom approaches is critical to drawing young women—and everybody else, too—to both subjects.

“When we teach by just telling, or lecturing, we miss a lot of people,” she said. “We don’t make math as interesting as we could.”

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