Are boys born loving trains and guns while girls reach for dolls and pretty pink dresses? Are boys born with different brains, enabling them in the areas of math and science, while girls naturally excel in literature and the written word?
You may remember, in 2005, when the president of Harvard at the time, Lawrence Summers, created such an uproar with disparaging comments about women’s aptitude for science and math. Well, it may be true there are dramatically more men than women in top levels of the science fields, but are the gender differences hard-wired?
This debate has raged on for years, the age-old nature versus nurture, science-brain versus art/literature-brain. Researchers have produced a wealth of results from various studies, often conflicting, and the matter remains far from resolved.
Studies have shown that American girls around between 9 and 17 consistently had fewer experiences in the science realm than boys, and generally expressed negative perceptions and attitudes toward science and math classes. Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, made his notorious comments about women’s aptitude – researchers have been searching for ways to explain why there are so many more men than women in the top ranks of science.
Explaining this gender gap away with the cry: “brain differences!” just does not wash, however. Recent research on gender with regard to skills in math was carried out in 86 countries. The results strongly suggest that culture may be the culprit, not brain differences, that this difference is not biological, but sociocultural. Some countries just do not show this gap that is apparent in the USA, and it seems in countries where females are comfortable and successful in the world of math, there is a greater degree of gender equality. For example, in Russia and Asia girls are more apt to pursue scientific careers than in the US, Canada and England.
But here in the States, the gap has been narrowing. Girls who are considered to be “highly gifted mathematicians” now number 3 to 1, a vast improvement over the 13 to 1 ratio that was present in the 1970s. Women obtaining graduate degrees in math are also on the uptick, even though men are still holding 70% of those degrees.
Suggestions for improving this further? The researchers listed:
Increase math-certified teachers in schools
Work on decreasing the number of children living in poverty
Equalize the gender equality gap.
Easier said than done.
When none other than Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says that women “lean away” from challenging jobs in the corporate firmament because they want to off-track sooner than later to have their children, it’s hard to see how society can do even a 180-degree turn toward encouraging girls to pursue studies in science and math.
The really startling insight here is that research over the last half of the twentieth century, especially, has shown that women scientists (if they find the right sponsors and continue their careers while also having children) tend to focus on socially worthy science, such as disease cures, alleviation of poverty, hunger and homelessness, along with other humanitarian concerns. Male scientists have historically focused on research that is more driven toward industrial applications, such as improving military supremacy, space travel optimization and finance.
No wonder that so many female senators, congresswomen, university educators and other like-minded women are advocating the improvement and enhancement of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls. We can only hope that a high percentage of them apply these skills to making real improvements on all of our lives – especially that of the current generation of their aging parents.