Can girls excel in math and science? Motivation and expectations matter

According to a TIME magazine article, there are only a few exceptions in the world where girls excel or beat the boys at math and science, and they are found in Iceland and Sweden. The article examines those models and concludes that motivation and expectations are the key …

An excerpt from the magazine goes:

“Expectations Matter

One thing we know about the brain is that it is vulnerable to the power of suggestion. There is plenty of evidence that when young women are motivated and encouraged, they excel at science. For most of the 1800s, for example, physics, astronomy, chemistry and botany were considered gender-appropriate subjects for middle-and upper-class American girls. By the 1890s, girls outnumbered boys in public high school science courses across the country, according to The Science Education of American Girls, a 2003 book by Kim Tolley.

Records from top schools in Boston show that girls outperformed boys in physics in the mid-19th century. Latin and Greek, meanwhile, were considered the province of gentlemen—until the 20th century, when lucrative opportunities began to open up in the sciences.

Today, in Iceland and Sweden, girls consistently outperform boys in math and physics (see box). In Sweden the gap is widest in the remote regions in the north. That may be because women want to move to the big cities farther south, where they would need to compete in high-tech economies, while men are focused on local hunting, fishing and forestry opportunities, says Niels Egelund, a professor of educational psychology at the Danish University of Education. The phenomenon even has a name, the Jokkmokk effect, a reference to an isolated town in Swedish Lapland.

Back in the States, the achievement gap in the sciences is closing, albeit slowly. Female professors have been catching up with male professors in their publishing output. Today half of chemistry and almost 60% of biology bachelor of science degrees go to females.

Next, Summers may want to take up the male question. In all seriousness. Why do so many more boys than girls have learning disorders, autism, attention-deficit problems and schizophrenia? Why are young men now less likely to go to college than women are? And what to make of a 2003 survey that found eighth-grade girls outperforming boys in algebra in 22 countries, with boys outscoring girls in only three nations? If we’re not careful, the next Einstein could find herself working as a high-powered lawyer who does wonders with estate-tax calculations instead of discovering what the universe is made of.

Source: “Who Says A Woman Can’t Be Einstein?” by Amanda Ripley

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