- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2002

Young women have lagged young men in math and science for years. How much progress have they made as they strive to catch up? Today's report card is promising, but it paints a complex picture involving conflicting data and stubborn stereotypes.
The National Center for Educational Statistics' 2000 study, "Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women," reports that the large gaps in women's educational opportunities overall have decreased or been eliminated.
That said, it does find female students compiling stronger scores in reading and writing than males but lagging in science and math in tests administered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
From 1973 to 1996, the report says, girls aged 9, 13 and 17 scored lower in science than boys of the same age, with the difference increasing with age. In recent years, however, 17-year-old girls have narrowed the gap.
The math report is somewhat different, though perhaps discouraging. From 1973 to 1994, girls and boys of 9 and 13 showed no significant differences in math scores, but from 1994 to 1996, boys of 9 and 13 began to surpass the girls in math achievement, so higher mathematics performance among the younger males is a recent development.
Among the 17-year-olds, boys achieved consistently higher scores than girls from 1973 to 1996, and in some years the boys' scores were "significantly higher."

Test scores can be misleading, says David Sadker, a professor at American University's School of Education and co-author of "Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Fail Girls," a look at educational biases based on sex.
"It's not good enough to say women are behind in math and science," Mr. Sadker says. "They've caught up in some areas, and they've fallen further behind in others, like computer science."
"If you look at course enrollments and test-taking in biology, math and even chemistry, you see dramatic gains for females over the past 10 to 15 years," he says.
But 85 percent of students in college engineering programs are male, he says, and two out of three physics majors are male, too.
When it comes to computer training, he says, the gap is getting worse. A decade ago, 65 percent of college computer majors were male, he says. That number is now 75 percent.
The American Association of University Women, which promotes equity in education for women, backs Mr. Sadker's contentions.
According to its 2000 report, "Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age," women make up only 20 percent of information technology professionals and hold less than 28 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science.
Part of the problem, Mr. Sadker says, may boil down to image.
"When you look at a computer geek, it's everything an adolescent girl doesn't want to be: isolated, socially ill-prepared," he says. "That's an issue."
Mr. Sadker says a select number of colleges are trying innovative approaches to close the educational gaps.
Smith College, a women's college in Northampton, Mass., offers a summer program to inspire young women in science, math and technology. Two years ago the college also began offering
an engineering program, which makes Smith the first women's college to offer such a program.
At Tufts University in Medford, Mass., women in the engineering program are given projects of social relevance, such as examining devices that help disabled people function, to spark their interest during their first year.
There's no question that women begin with an interest in the worlds of math and science, says Ivy Kennelly, assistant professor of sociology at George Washington University.
"Women enter math and science disciplines with a lot of enthusiasm. Over time, for a variety of reasons, they lose faith in their ability," Ms. Kennelly says.
One factor is negative peer pressure.
"A few men students hassle them: 'You don't really know as much as we know.' Cumulatively, this winds up making them less interested," she says.
She contends that other problems start at an early age.
"A lot of men who enter college to become engineering majors, they've had hands-on experience tinkering with dad's cars, with their bikes," she says. "Girls receive less encouragement to do that tinkering."
Still, Ms. Kennelly sees slow but steady cultural progress.
She says more women are taking leadership roles in society, offering positive role models for young women.

One such person, former astronaut Sally Ride, is tackling the matter personally.
Ms. Ride, the first American woman in space, created the Sally Ride Science Club to help impart a love of science to young women.
Her club is just getting off the ground, holding
science festivals at various spots nationwide, with an eye on expanding come fall. Her latest festival was last month at George Mason University.
The club, intended for middle school girls, has about 1,000 members.
As a girl, Ms. Ride gobbled up information on the sciences.
"A lot of my friends were as interested as I was," Ms. Ride says. "They ran into a friend who actively or passively discouraged them from it. I never ran into that discouragement. My parents were very supportive of what I wanted to do."
"Girls, starting in middle school, drift away from math and science in numbers greater than boys do," she continues. "We're trying to encourage those girls to stick with it and show them it is cool and it is natural" to pursue math and science.
Anne Danenberg, research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, in optimistic.
Her 2001 report, "Who's Lagging Now? Gender Differences in Secondary Course Enrollments," reveals that California high school girls, when given the option of selecting their courses, are enrolling in more science and math course than boys are.
But girls trail boys in enrolling in some Advanced Placement, or college level, courses in computer science.
Although men and women use computers at the same rate in school and into their work lives, men create that technology, says Ms. Danenberg, whose San Francisco nonprofit studies economic, social and political issues of interest to Californians.
The report notes progress on other fronts, though.
It found that 6 percent more girls than boys are taking college preparatory math courses and 7 percent more physical science courses.
Girls have made enormous strides since the 1960s in these areas, she says. But a glimpse at the employment world reveals that much more work has to be done.
"There are a lot of women in the computer industry, but not in the technical jobs but sales and management," she says. "They're not in the creation of technical jobs. Those jobs rely on engineering, which has a huge physics component."
Ms. Ride says the educational landscape is far better for young women than when she was in school.
Just look at the numbers.
In 1970, she says, less than 1 percent of the country's engineers were women. Today that figure is about 9 percent, a vast improvement but a fraction of where Ms. Ride would like to see the figure.
"The world of science and technology would benefit to take advantage of all the intellectual capital available," she says.
"Men and women are different, but it's been amply demonstrated that women have a lot to contribute to the sciences and engineering disciplines: their creativity, imagination and analytical skills."

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