Mystery of the Missing Women in Science

The mystery continues….

Why are women more reluctant to choose careers in science?  Worldwide, girls’ average math scores are on a par with those of boys. Even among math geniuses who score in the top ten thousandth of the population — the rarefied precinct notoriously deemed a boys’ club by the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers — the male advantage has been shrinking steadily, to about 3 boys per girl today from 13 in the 1980s. Girls also excel in the classroom. Nationwide, their grade point average in high school math and science is 2.76 out of 4, compared with 2.56 for boys.

In a recent study, Anthony Derriso of the University of Alabama reported his analysis of a vast 2009 study of more than 21,000 ninth graders nationwide. Students of both sexes rated boys and girls equally competent in science and math; expressed similar levels of confidence in their own math and science skills; and were equally likely to say they felt they were engaged in math and science and were supported by their teachers, parents and peers.

Yet aptitude is one thing, aspiration another. In answer to the question “Are you likely to pursue a scientific career?” some 2,300 students — 11 percent of the total — said yes. Among the ninth-grade yeasayers, 61 percent were male.  Mr. Derriso admits to bafflement. “If boys and girls are equally interested in math and science and feel equally confident about their abilities,” he wondered, “why this humongous difference in intent? I don’t have an answer for that.”

Some interesting facts:

  • While 29 percent of male college students major in math or science, only 15 percent of female do
  • Boys who ace science embrace science, but female mathletes keep their skills at arm’s length.
  • Among students with high scores on the math portion of the SAT, boys cited their desire to major in the physical sciences, engineering or computers, while the girls preferred fields like economics, political science or medicine. One reason for the disparity may be that girls with high math scores, unlike their male counterparts, also tend to have high verbal scores and so may feel their career options are wide open. But still, given the choice, why do so many girls walk away from science and math?
  • Although women now earn close to 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees overall, they only earn 20 percent of the degrees in computer science, 20 percent of those in physics and 18 percent of those in engineering.
  • Women constitute half the nation’s work force but just a quarter of its scientific corps
  • Women with science degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a scientific occupation

Some researchers think girls maybe more reluctant to be labeled “nerds”.  If the issue is not intelligence, or interest, there may be other conditioning factors at play.  Maybe we all need to learn to embrace being smart and celebrate being “nerds”.

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