MATH, SCIENCE, AND
CAN WE CLOSE THE GENDER GAP?
In 1992, Mattel Toys put the first talking Barbie doll on the market.
Barbie's first words were, "Math class is tough." Mattel thought
they were simply expressing the feelings of most school-age girls. Many
parents and teachers, though, thought Barbie should keep her mouth shut.
As a result, Barbie stopped talking.
The controversy surrounding Barbie and her statement about math highlights
a concern in this country about male-female differences in math and
science. Although the gender gap has narrowed over the years, boys
continue to outperform girls on standardized tests of math and science
achievement. At the same time, girls' attitudes about math and science
have become more negative. Many girls feel that they are not good at math
and science and say that they do not like these subjects. These trends are
troubling because girls' grades in math and science classes are often
equal to or better than those of boys. In other words, girls can do math
and science. Nevertheless, in high school when students are allowed to
choose courses, girls are more likely than boys to opt out of advanced
math and science. As a result, girls are often less prepared for certain
academic disciplines. This limits both their college major and career
choices. The question is: Why do we see these differences?
WHY THE GENDER GAP?
Until recently, it was believed that
male-female differences in math and science were caused by biology. In
other words, girls' and boys' brains are different, so they are better
suited for different things. The notion is that boys have superior spatial
abilities, making them better suited for certain mathematical
manipulations. Girls, on the other hand, are supposed to be better at
language and writing. Evidence shows that boys do excel in math, and girls
appear to do better in verbal-related skills. But are these differences a
result of biology, or do other factors play a role?
More recently, researchers have focused on the influence of the social
environment on children's math and science achievement. Very early on,
boys are given the chance to tinker with toys or objects (for example,
building blocks, Legos, racing cars, and simple machines) that involve
many of the principles inherent in math and science. Girls often lack
these experiences, so they enter math and science classrooms feeling
insecure about their abilities. Girls then begin to believe they cannot do
math and science as well as boys. This belief is consistent with a
stereotype in our culture that defines math and science as male domains.
That is, males are better suited for math and science, and math and
science are more useful to males than to females. Also, personality traits
attributed to mathematicians and scientists are associated more with
males. Mathematicians and scientists are often thought to be competitive,
achievement-oriented, and not very social.
Parents, teachers, or school counselors who believe these stereotypes are
less likely to encourage or support a young girl's decisions to take math
and science in high school and beyond. It has been found that when parents
believe boys are better at math than girls, they are willing to let their
daughters drop out of math class when the going gets tough. With sons,
however, the same parents encourage persistence. In the classroom,
teachers, often unaware of their own biases, call on boys more, praise
boys more for correct answers, and are more likely to ask boys for help in
science and math demonstrations. The message girls get is that they are
not as good as boys.
CLOSING THE GENDER GAP
In response to the research findings,
educators have tried to make math and science accessible, equitable, and
exciting to all students. Teachers are now encouraged to use a hands-on
approach to teaching math and science in their classrooms. The idea is
that students will learn more if teachers give them the chance to do math
and science and not just to hear about it. Students will then feel more
confident about their abilities and realize that math and science can be
fun! Parents, too, have become aware of the need to encourage every
child's achievement in math and science. To close the gender gap, though,
schools and parents will have to continue their efforts. Here are some
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Parents should give their sons and
daughters early math and science experiences. Visit a local science
- Have parents think about the toys they
buy for their children. Don't forget that girls like chemistry sets,
- Encourage parents to find out what their
child is doing in math and science at school and in the child care
setting. Does the child come home excited about a neat experiment he
or she did that day?
- When children enter high school, parents
should encourage both boys and girls to take math and science. It's
never too early to learn about college entrance requirements.
- Parents should let their children know
that both boys and girls can become anything they want to be ... even
a mathematician or scientist!
WHAT CHILD CARE
PROVIDERS CAN DO
- Give every child the chance to learn
math and science.
- Give staff in-service training on how to
treat children equally in the classroom.
- Give staff the resources and materials
they need to give children hands-on experiences in math and science.
- Contact a local industry, university, or
your local Cooperative Extension office to find out what kind of math
and science experiences they may be able to offer to your program.
Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC.
Jovanovic, J. and Dreves, C. (1995). Math, science, and girls: Can we
close the gender gap?. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.)., *School-age connections*,
5(2), Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.