March 19, 2005
The fierce debate about educational aptitudes and differences between males and females in science and math has heated up again.
In January, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers re-ignited the issue when he suggested at a private conference that differences in the development of womenís and menís cerebral cortexes could be an explanation for the lack of tenured female professors on engineering and science faculties among the nationís universities.
Protesters continue to ask for Summersí ouster, even though he publicly apologized and even though he also said factors other than biological ones are involved in the lack of women in the sciences.
While there is no doubt about differences in the ways female and male brains function, they likely are not the most-significant factor keeping women out of important roles in engineering and science. Historic practices of schools and school systems related to course selection place females who are now older than 40 at a serious disadvantage.
Just 10 years ago, SchoolMatch audit teams frequently felt compelled to recommend that school boards revise policies and practices to assure "access to all curricula be free of gender bias." In many schools our teams visit across the country today, we are pleased to see a marked and positive change in this access, which helps solve one of the root causes of disparities in opportunities for women in science and engineering. Today, we are more likely to see commendable efforts to enhance gender equity for students, including equity of access to all course offerings for all students.
Endeavors to counsel students into courses where their gender is underrepresented are increasing and stereotypes are being diminished. Evidence of improving gender-equity ratios in advanced courses in science and mathematics is considerable
Boys develop visual ability and skills involving manipulation of objects in space (spatial skills) earlier than girls. Girls develop language skills earlier than boys. Moreover, girls generally grasp communication concepts of verbal give-and take earlier than do boys. Boys are more likely to play with building blocks and other physical toys requiring less verbal interaction because they often have faster-developing spatial skills.
On the other hand, motivating boys to read may be problematic. Some boys who are interested in books in early elementary school years lose interest in the upper elementary grades. Many donít start reading again for pleasure until they have finished college or entered a career.
Some educators claim this concern about boys is exaggerated. Others claim boys face an unprecedented literary crisis that limits their opportunities, citing studies showing this gap between the sexes has increased markedly.
Cognitive differences between girls and boys tend to diminish during the high-school years. However, inequities persist because boys have been conditioned to strengthen their skills in math and science, and girls in language arts.
Many students have formed images that lead them to select certain courses that reflect their self perceived strengths. Girls often avoid physics and calculus in high school, never giving themselves the chance to discover their capabilities.
Gender differences in learning are receiving renewed attention as educators focus upon why and how boys and girls learn differently. It is critical that teachers, parents and counselors persuade girls to select courses in math, science and pre-engineering, such as computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, if we are to experience more women enrolling in engineering and the sciences. Of course, the same is true for males in languages, writing and literature.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data