Girls and science: why the gender gap exists and what to do about it
The US Department of Education has found that girls “who have a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science are more likely to choose and perform well in elective math and science courses and to select math and science-related college majors and careers”.
The department emphasizes that: “improving girls’ beliefs about their abilities could alter their choices and performance … particularly as they move out of elementary school and into middle and high school.”
If it’s nurture not nature that affects your daughter’s ability what can you do? Here are some tips from the experts:
Emphasize that we live in a scientific world
“Science” is not just something taught at school. Teachers at a science conference in New York a couple of years ago said that while girls are increasingly resistant to the idea of “science” as a standalone subject when they reach middle school, they are invariably receptive and energetic students when the same scientific principles are presented to them as “social studies”.
The weather forecast, climate change, what we eat, illnesses and allergies, methods of transportation, the electronics that fill your house – are all areas of science that surround your daughter. Scientific theory fires her imagination when connected to current or domestic affairs, or when she can empathize.
Understand that girls generally begin processing information on the brain’s left, or language, side
So, girls deconstruct math concepts verbally. Looking at something on a board or screen is not enough. They need to unpack the problem using language. They need to “talk it through”.
Girls are more responsive to color than boys
Color-code toys and blocks for sorting and patterning beginning at an early age. Buy colored blocks and when you build with them make patterns. Buy the patterned coloring-books (stained glass windows, flowers etc) or color-by-number books for travel.
Don’t just use color-coding as a math activity either
Integrate it into how your family keeps things organized. Use different colored boxes or containers for specific items. Talk about what you are doing, so you use language to provide a narrative for a visual experience. As your daughter gets older, color-code folders and files for school by subject so that she can grab them easily. Color-code your family calendar (easily done if you use Apple or Google calendars).
Have her read instructions and recipes aloud
When she eventually performs science experiments this will help her break down the steps involved. It also helps with deconstructing more elaborate math problems down the road.
Once she graduates beyond the simple patterning of blocks, buy her kits (like Lego) that involve building according to instructions
Even when the project is relatively easy, have her read the steps aloud to you. It’s amazing what girls skip when they don’t slow themselves down for this step.
Encourage her to learn things by heart
Sometimes girls who don’t understand a concept can get by – or get there – by committing solutions to memory. This isn’t ideal, as you want your daughter to understand what she is reciting. But sometimes learning by rote (a multiplication table, for example) is a useful step towards internalizing a pattern.
Have a younger girl copy a picture from a drawing book or describe something to her that she has to draw
Tell her to look at a picture that you can’t see and describe it so that you can draw it. In this way you strengthen the connection between words and pictures, or language and visualization.
Keep doing jigsaw puzzles, even when she seems to lose interest
Puzzles are a great, soothing, brain-stretching family activity. And – added bonus for parents! – stave off Alzheimer’s disease. The same goes for crossword puzzles and card games.
Never tell her the answer. Ever
The point of math is not so much to get the answer but to figure out how to get it. The more you do for your daughter the more you short circuit her self esteem. If she is stuck on something, keep asking questions. Ask her questions all the time in every context, especially domestic ones. “How do you think we should do this?” “Could there be another way?”
Cooking – especially following a recipe – uses both math and science
Weighing, measuring and timing are all mathematical exercises. Baking in particular, where the action of X on Y causes Z, is a scientific activity. If you encourage your daughter to experiment in the kitchen, she will be more comfortable experimenting at school.
Research shows that as girls get older they retain their mathematical and scientific abilities when applied to domestic scenarios
So make your domestic scenario more mathematic and scientific. Shopping is filled with math problems, particularly if your daughter wants something that is too expensive.
Never accept language such as “I can’t do this” or “I’m bad at math”
And so on. She can do it. MATH IS MEANT TO BE HARD. Tell her that. It stretches her brain, just as physical activities stretch her body. The more she stretches the easier it gets.
Have the right tools
The Department of Education says the more educational resources you have in your home, the better your daughter will do – at math. Girls who have a dictionary, a computer, and a study desk or table for their use perform better than those who don’t.
More books, less TV
The more books you have lying around, the better she will do – at math.
The more TV a girl watches, the worse she will do – at math.
At puberty girls move from self-confidence to self-consciousness. At this point they start to censor themselves and become increasingly silent in class. They deny their intelligence. 31% of girls in elementary school say they are good at math. In middle school that number drops to 18%. The greatest drop occurs among the brightest girls. Girls who work collaboratively are less likely to suffer this kind of setback. A pilot high school is being tried out in girls’ schools across the country. The Pogil project, (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) puts girls to work together in small groups on topics like “How would you prevent the levees breaking?” with assigned roles while the teacher is present as a facilitator.
Encourage the same kind of collaboration in your sleepovers or birthday parties. Have the girls cook dinner, or bake cookies or tie dye t-shirts together. You can be the “facilitator.”
Present your daughter with positive role models
Find a female pediatrician. Girls often say they hate science but they love medicine. (The numbers of females entering medicine is increasing every year with women attracted by the empathic nature of medical science.) And never put down your own ability. Don’t tell your daughter that you “suck” at math, or anything else along those lines. Do you really need me to explain why?
• The Pogil project: a pilot high school scheme supported by both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education
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