Math and science have no gender

Illustration of a girl writing math equations on a blackboard (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

At a science camp for sixth-grade girls in Texas, the teacher dumped a box of bicycle parts on the floor and told the girls to assemble the bike — without the instructions.

They did it, just as they’d successfully made a dancing robot from Lego blocks and a wooden pinball machine with flashing lights.

“The point was to get mechanics and engineering in our heads,” says 12-year-old Avery Lopez. “In a regular science class, you’d probably get all the boys to do the work. I honestly would have done that.”

The science and technology camp in the Lamar school district outside Houston is one of many initiatives to capture girls’ interest early and entice them into taking higher-level math and science classes.

In most countries, more male than female college students major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and go on to careers in those fields. Governments and educators almost everywhere are mounting efforts to overcome this gender gap.

There are signs of progress, at least at the elementary school level.

Compared to 1995, the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study of 4th and 8th graders in dozens of countries found “far fewer countries having gender differences favoring boys and quite a few countries where girls outperformed boys, particularly in science.”

However, on a separate exam given only to those enrolled in advanced math and physics classes in secondary school, there’s still a gender gap. “We see fewer girls enrolled in those courses, and their achievement is significantly lower,” says Dirk Hastedt, executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Why a gender gap?

Experts agree girls and boys do not differ in their ability to learn STEM subjects, but “girls in a lot of societies don’t see their future in mathematics and science. They don’t see many female scientists, which reduces their self-esteem,” says Hastedt.

Educators are striving to change that. Big companies are eager to recruit female programmers and engineers, while universities and professional societies are rethinking curricula and teaching styles to find “what is not attracting women or even pushing them away,” says Jolene Jesse of the National Science Foundation.

It’s never too soon to start. The Lamar schools began the enrichment camps to “make sure girls have as much exposure [to STEM] as they do to ballet classes or cheerleading,” says Valerie Vogt, chief academic officer.

Avery Lopez, a whiz on programming a 3-D printer, sees her future in computer design. Her advice to those who shy away from math and science? “Definitely look into science and engineering, because it’s a really big field with few girls in it.”