When Larry Summers, the current director of the National Economic Council, addressed a group of economists in January 2005 on the topic of girls’ performance in science and math, saying that girls scored lower due to “innate differences” from boys, he raised a firestorm. Some attribute his firing as president of Harvard University to those comments, which he claimed were spoken to be provocative. However, although some would assert that Summers is correct in his analysis, new data do not bear out these statements.
2009 Studies on Math and Science
Two reports released in 2009 show that females are making progress in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). The first was from the National Research Council, which found that in Spring 2009, the number of women earning PhDs in science (although still fewer in number than their male counterparts) were just as likely to land lucrative teaching positions (including tenure) at major universities. The second 2009 report came out of the National Academy of Sciences, where recent studies have found girls in the United States have “reached parity with boys in mathematical achievement.”
Progress at University and in the Corporate World
There has also been strong progress at the university and corporate levels. More women are entering universities in pursuit of math and science degrees. For example, one half of all students now entering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are women. In 2008, female Carnegie Mellon students in math and science numbered 30 percent (up from 17 percent in the mid-1980s). And engineering has become one of the most popular majors at women-dominated Smith College (from 20 grads in 2004 to 135 in 2009).
Women today in the math and sciences are also finding themselves in top corporate roles, from Xerox CEO Ursula Burns to Yahoo Chief Executive Carol Bartz, who points out, “If you don’t learn percentages, you can’t go on most sales calls once you get a job. And if you can’t pass basic university math, you are closing yourself off to three-quarters of the careers in America.”
Enhancing Math and Science Early On
However, even with this positive feedback in female achievement in math and science, what can be done to ensure that the trend continues? How can math and science skills be enhanced for girls? There are a number of positive steps that can be taken. The most important is the need for a dispelling of insecurities about learning math and science early in school. Teachers who resist the stereotype of “girls not being good in math and science” go a long way to building their students’ confidence. Insisting that girls can excel at math and science breeds success in the classroom.
However, that confidence may be fleeting. Therefore, it is important to keep girls interested in the STEM subjects. Beyond that, girls need to be shown positive role models in the business world. Influential business leaders lend the idea that “one of us” can be CEO, head engineer, a scientific researcher, or any other number of math and science careers for women. In this regard, mentoring has come to play an important role.
While mentoring is common as girls get older, more programs need to be established at an earlier age. Teachers and counselors at the lower grade levels need to provide girls with examples and encouragement so that they will follow their math and science strengths.
Public and Private Mentoring
Recent changes at one university prove the impact mentoring can have on the role of women in science and math. In recent years, the number of women enrolling in Brown University in physical science programs has shot up 40 percent. Many attribute this to their WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) mentoring program. For more than a decade, this National Science Foundation-endorsed program has led to a striking increase in female applications for science degrees at the university. The National Science Foundation showed its participation by giving Brown a $3 million grant in support of women in science.
Sometimes such needed support comes from the private sector. Autodesk Corporation, for example, established a website and internship program to encourage high school girls to think more seriously about careers in math and science. Yet more needs to be done.
All these steps can work to enhance not only the self-confidence of young girls learning math and science, but continue to encourage the pattern of achievement that finally seems in play. Math and science are for everyone, including girls. The message is finally being heard.