Do girls really fare worse than boys when it comes to studying science, or more specifically, while doing mathematics? Most people, including academics, seem to think so. No less an authority than the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, reiterated the same thing a few years back when he suggested that the lack of innate aptitude of women was a factor behind their low numbers in science and engineering. He had to resign, of course, but not before another “authority”, the well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, argued that Summers' remarks were scientifically justified and should not be considered offensive. Well, too bad for them because it's official now: girls are apparently just as good at math as boys. That was the finding of a study — the largest of its kind ever — released last week in the journal 'Science'. In it, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, said a comparison of standardised mathematical test scores of approximately seven million students showed girls did as well as boys at virtually every grade level — from primary to high school. This reverses study reports from some 20 years ago when girls were found to be lagging behind boys. Obviously, something other than genes are at work here in narrowing the gap. Normally, the perception which prevails among both parents and teachers is that boys are better at math and, as a conditioned reflex, girls keep buying into that. By believing the stereotype they wind up avoiding harder math classes which keep them out of a lot of careers in later life, particularly high-prestige, lucrative ones in science and technology. However, according to the new study, programmes promoting girls' participation in mathematics and science, as has been done in the US, is the ideal solution because the more girls are encouraged to take advanced math classes, the better they do on tests. This clearly suggests that cultural and social factors, not gender alone, influence ability to understand mathematical concepts. The relevance of the encouragement factor in a country like India, where the same mindset is even more rampant, cannot be overstated. Along with encouraging parents to give girls an education, if they could also be persuaded to push them along science streams, it could result in expanded opportunities for their children in the future.
Aug 1, 2008
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