Why Do American Girls Not Excel in Science and Math?
Starting at about the 5th or 6th grade, American girls typically took a giant leap forward--both intellectually and academically--that left their male counterparts in the proverbial dust, giving them a step up when it came to understanding the fundamentals of science and math.
During this same developmental period, most boys' interests gravitated toward sports or business. And generally, this trend continued through high school even though few girls planned to major in science or math if they continued on to college.
Young ladies who attended college during this era usually followed the educational path of traditional roles common to American sensibilities: pursuing careers as teachers, nurses, or went into secretarial work.
This educational and vocational path was, of course, culturally directed; one of practicality. Relatively speaking, few “traditional” households in America during this time had two working parents--unless the wife was in one of those practical fields. Clearly, where was the incentive for a young woman to pursue a career in science or math when there was no market for her skills?
During the 1960s, the attitudes and perceptions of the 40s and 50s were targeted by the women’s liberation movements; the attitudes they perceived as in need of serious societal revision.
And while many women of this era were inspired to ignore social convention and proceed to pursue studies of personal interest--with many finding success in science- and math-related fields--it appears that ultimately the centuries of gender bias had succeeded in instilling sexual and gender values so thoroughly, that even when given the opportunity to pursue a career in a field of heartfelt interest or aptitude, it seemed like such an uphill battle that few were prepared to engage that particular fight. Thus, many societal prejudices remain firmly engrained in American society even half a century later.
But is this male-dominated perspective logical or in the best interest of American society?
Sociologists universally stress the importance of every society effectively and efficiently utilizing the full range of its resources. It simply makes no sense to allow a society to struggle for survival (as the US has been doing for over a decade) for the sake of social convention.
This point is well illustrated in a March 2006 article that appeared in USA Today in which Sally Ride, the first American woman in space stated in an interview that according to a study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) while 66% of 4th grade girls showed a decided interest in science, by 8th grade that figure is cut in half as girls routinely “dumb down” in reaction to the stereotypes and social pressures they encounter in their scool and social settings.
Ride quotes a science teacher who was addressing a female high school student who was about to graduate with the highest scores in biology in her class, telling her, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to give the [school] science award to [the boy] because it’s more important to him.” She goes on to quote Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, who in a speech given in 2000 openly stated, “men may simply be predisposed to be better at math and science.”
Reflecting the short-sightedness of this wide-spread attitude are the results of a 2005 NCES study which showed that women earned the majority of undergraduate degrees in the US from 2000 to 2004, and more Ph.Ds than men--with consistently higher GPAs.
So, why aren’t universities required to offer the same encouragement to young women as they typically do to young men?
School counselors have always straddled a very precarious fence, torn between encouraging a safe, traditional career path that will assure a young’s woman’s future, and following the school district’s projections about future employment trends. One can hardly blame an advisor for following the path of advisement they are entrusted to encourage.
But it can’t be denied that perpetuation of centuries-old stereotypes is resulting in a continued disproportionate ratio of male college grads pursuing careers the sciences and maths--while many females are equally gifted. According to the National Science Foundation's most recent statistics, 51% of the US population is female, while they represnet only 22% of the scientists.
Though school programs designed to cultivate skills in math and science have been proven effective in building confidence and self-esteem in young women, comparatively few school systems in the US actually implement them.
Due to this fact, several countries around the world including Korea, China, Japan, and India are producing nearly double the number of female scientists and technologically-savvy women as we are--a trend that could have devastating consequence in coming years as technology shifts from male-oriented approaches to technology to female-oriented approaches and the US is left in technological dark.
USA Today, March, 2006
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