Monday, August 22, 2011

Why girls drop math II: Who wants to be alone?

We know that girls are less likely to go into math and “hard science” careers than boys.  There are lots of reactions people have to this news.  Some, like Lawrence Summers (who became the former president of Harvard in large part because this remark in 2005) suggested that women may not have the same innate abilities in math as men.  Others suggest that the school system is somehow failing girls in school.  Still others are concerned about social pressure that girls might feel to shy away from looking smart when there are boys around.

These last two ideas have some traction in popular and political culture.  There has been movement to create all-girls’ schools to give girls an environment to thrive.  Indeed, my home town of Austin Texas has a public all-girls school (named after former Texas governor Ann Richards).  I think there is much to like about the idea about an all-girls school for middle-schoolers.  One question we should ask, though, is whether the mass exodus of girls from math (and to some degree hard sciences) is being caused by a failure of the educational system.

Psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles has studied this question extensively.  One of her more surprising findings is that girls tend to attach less value to math than boys.  There are a few sources of the difference in value that boys and girls place on math.

For one, parents may give their children beliefs about how important math ought to be to them.  Eccles’ evidence suggests that girls are less likely to value math and to take advanced math courses when their parents do not believe that math is as important for girls as it is for boys.  So, girls are internalizing the beliefs of their parents.

For another, there is a pervasive stereotype that mathematicians lead a lonely existence.  When we think about mathematicians, we imagine the lone genius hunched over a desk writing incomprehensible formulas that have lots of Greek letters in them.  On occasion, these lonely figures may emerge from their cramped messy dens to shout Eureka and post the solution to a problem that five people in the world care about on a blackboard in a university hallway. 

Girls find this prospect much less appealing than boys.  Girls are much more likely than boys to state that want a career that has lots of social interaction as a part of it.  When girls start making decisions about the classes they are going to take, they are much more likely to gravitate toward sciences like biology and psychology than toward math, chemistry or physics.  Biology usually leads to pre-medical study in college, and the medical professions are seen as very social.  Likewise, psychology, social work, and other helping professions are seen as social. 

This research suggests that one big reason why girls are less likely to stick with math than boys is a difference in life goals. 

The big question, then, is whether the stereotype about math and the hard sciences is true.  In fact, much of modern science is highly collaborative.  Scientists must find ways to work together to solve difficult problems.  The myth of the lone scientist is just that—a myth.  And that means that science has a public relations job to do.  If we want more girls to go into math and science professions, we are going to need to do more work letting girls know what those careers will really involve. 

I do want to be clear about one thing, though.  There are lots of reasons to think that some girls will be more likely to succeed in a school environment without boys.  So, I am not suggesting that we close all-girl schools.  I am suggesting that the reason to open such schools is not because our current schools are failing to give a good math and science education to girls.  However, we might use venues like all-girl schools to start the process of teaching girls more about what careers are possible with a good math and science education.