"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Female Math Myth

In the 1630s Puritan leader, John Winthrop, warned husbands against allowing their wives to be swept up in the dizzying and debilitating business of book learning. A hundred and fifty years after that, Rousseau argued that Nature, no less, had destined women to an education for the benefit of males, "to make life sweet and agreeable for them." Such domination and stupidity could not be altered by the few women who dared to speak the truth, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who earned an attribution as the "hyena in petticoats" for her fearless counter-arguments in the late 18th Century.

Now we find that that Mary was right, of course, and that women are just as capable as men in intellectual pursuits, if not more so. From Time Magazine, and note how the author, a woman herself, continues the long, long tradition of offering a male orientation to readers who may find reason enough to dismiss these findings when they see that all the researchers were, gasp, women. The research appears in the most recent issue of Science:
A new report by researchers at University of Wisconsin and University of California, Berkeley, aims to overturn the long-held belief that girls aren't as good at math as boys. According to new data, the researchers say, that gender gap has become a myth — a finding they hope will help shift the very real gender gap in math, science and technology professions, which are currently dominated by men.
Janet Hyde, a psychologist at University of Wisconsin, and her (all-female) collaborators culled data from federally mandated annual math tests administered to 7.2 million second- through 11th-grade students in 10 states. They found little difference between boys' and girs' average math scores. Hyde also searched for a gender difference in the outlying scores — that is, whether more boys were among the top math scorers than girls — but again found negligible difference, although boys did still slightly outnumber girls in the 99th percentile.

The equalizing of math scores may reflect the simple fact that more female students are now taking math courses, says Hyde, whose study, funded by the National Science Foundation, appears in the current issue of Science. In Hyde's earlier research in the 1990s, she found that girls and boys scored similarly on math tests in elementary school, but that by high school the boys were overtaking the girls. Why? Because somewhere along the way, girls stopped taking math and never learned the skills required to do well on standardized tests. Today, girls are increasingly sticking with math classes through school — according to the paper, girls and boys take advanced math in high school in equal numbers, and women receive nearly half of all bachelor degrees given in math in the U.S. — and their scores are closing the gap. But "the stereotype that boys are better at math is alive and strong," Hyde says. "Parents still believe it, and teachers still believe it." . . . .

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