Mind the Science Gap

An age-old gender mystery: Why do so many more boys and young men gravitate towards careers in science than girls and young women?

Are their brains wired differently?

Do we raise them to think differently?

Do we teach girls to fear math and the hard sciences?

Does the culture somehow steer our daughters towards literature and the social sciences?

In 2005, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, made a controversial comment about the female aptitude for science (or lack thereof) that made feminists wild  and drove parents everywhere to sign their daughters up for summer science enrichment classes. While it didn’t wreck his career (he later became a powerful White House economics advisor), it did get him relieved of his job at Harvard. Apparently, it’s unseemly for an educator at the head of the most prestigious university in the nation to insult more than half his students (the undergraduate population at Harvard is 51% female).

Since that time, researchers and academics have struggled to figure out why, when women have excelled and outpaced their male counterparts in so many areas of education, they continue to be under-represented in high level science positions. New research soon to be published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development may hint at an explanation.

A science and math skills test was given to 15-year-old subjects around the world — in the United States, Britain, Canada, Russia, Asia and the Middle East. What they found was fascinating: girls generally outperform boys in science — but not in the United States, Canada or Britain.

In these western countries, boys tend to gravitate towards careers in science, technology and engineering, and they perform better on the exam. Russia, Asia and the Middle East have a much higher proportion of women going into science, and girls score almost 10 percent better on the test than boys do.

Why? How can this be explained?

Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the tests, says different countries have different attitudes towards learning (and teaching) science and math. In the United States, he said, boys are more likely than girls to “see science as something that affects their life.” Women are less likely to seek science careers, even though they are more than capable of succeeding in them.

Gender roles and career expectations are defined as early as age four, so we may conclude that western cultures are effectively molding these preferences. For girls in the Middle-East, education, science and technology provide a step up in the social structure, Mr. Schleicher says, “It is a critical way to earn social mobility.”

So there it is. Our daughters in the U.S. are absorbing early messages about desirable career paths and gender roles. These messages include veering away from science in a way that limits their options and impacts their future performance. Will we sit on the sidelines and accept this cultural determinism, or will we fight it?

Chemistry camp, anyone?

Join the fight and learn more about the OECD study here. Then tell us what you think.

 

 

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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