BOSTON — A ninth grader walks into her first math class of the school year. She's bright, attentive, and ready to learn. But she's also a little shy about raising her hand in a competitive atmosphere where boys are bidding for the teacher's attention. And she's worried her answers may not be right the first time.
Not long into the school year, she has mentally given up. ''This is not my subject,'' she tells herself. She has already decided that she doesn't have the turn of mind or the attitude required to make it in this ''masculine'' field.
Such a scenario occurs far too often, say many specialists. Girls are conditioned - socially and academically - not to forge ahead in subjects such as math and science. Yet inherently they are capable of succeeding.
A 1991 survey by the American Association of University Women, for instance, found that girls with a bent for math and science seek more ambitious careers, stick to their goals more tenaciously, and even feel better about how they look than girls not interested in those subjects. Any deterring influence - in school or society - not only denies some of the smartest girls a career in math and science, but also wastes a huge national resource at a time it is urgently needed.
The problem starts before school, says Sandy Stryker, a career counselor who has studied the impact of the school experience on later careers. It starts in the home and continues in primary school, she maintains.
''Girls aren't usually raised to be risk-takers,'' Ms. Stryker says. ''They're afraid of getting the wrong answer, so later they tend to prefer classes like English where you can give half an answer. In addition, ''girls tend to think if they're good at something, it should come easily to them. If they take the math class and give the wrong answer, or it doesn't make sense the first time they hear it, they start to think. 'Oh gosh, I'm no good at math!'''
One of the remarkable statistics is that up to 90 percent of the brightest kids who do not go on to college are girls, says Stryker, who has co-authored books with Mindy Bingham about helping girls do well in school and life. ''Another is that the most neglected group of kids in school tends to be the bright girls, because they don't demand attention, they don't create any problems.''
Stryker is urging a set of specific steps by which parents can bolster their daughters' performance in math class. ''As their daughters approach this age - ninth and 10th grades - they're being asked to make decisions that will affect their future profoundly,'' she says. ''So parents need to make sure daughters are feeling good about themselves and their potential. That's why it's so important for parents to try to help girls see themselves as successful at math.''
Specifically, Stryker says, parents can start telling girls at an early age that ''math is fun.'' Parents can also make girls aware that trying and failing are often preliminaries to success. ''The big thing parents can do,'' she says, ''is to stop rescuing their daughters.''
Parents allow boys to struggle and take knocks as they make their way. ''Girls,'' Stryker says, ''from the time they're born, are thought to be more fragile. We cultivate that. For years it's been what was valued in girls.''
Barbara Hill, president of Sweet Briar College, in Sweet Briar, Va., agrees, saying that influences denying girls their math potential start early. ''It ranges from the kind of toys girls are given to the kind of emphasis that's placed on those skills in the home.'' Ms. Hill says that her own 13-year-old daughter ''reports that young boys are much more active in school and consequently get noticed.'' Hill says her daughter also ''puts a lot of weight on liking something the first time. I'm trying to teach her more perseverance. I have to be attentive to encouraging the second try.''
Parents, especially mothers, need to be role models, says Stryker. Mothers should display math skills where practical and avoid the stereotype of the woman who cannot balance her checkbook while dad and brother deal with math challenges.
''It's still true the person most interested in girls' science education is the father,'' says Susan Piepho, professor of chemistry at Sweet Briar College, an all-women's college that is part of a national program to improve the way science and math are taught in colleges. ''We've got to get the mothers more interested.''
According to J.F. Crabtree, professor of math education at the University of Memphis, ''Research shows that boys who do well in math, when asked why, say 'ability.' When girls are asked, their response is 'effort.' '' That's due, he suspects, to conditioning by parents and teachers.
Speaking from long experience, Professor Crabtree says, ''There's no difference in basic ability, but outside influences have effects. Teachers tend to interact more with male students than female students. This may be part of the conditioning.''
Another contributing factor, Stryker says, is that most math teachers are still men. ''Most of the students in the upper-level classes are boys. Boys in class tend to be more active, more insistent on getting attention. They'll call out answers without raising their hands.''
Stryker says the time is ripe for improvement. ''Although schools haven't done an adequate job,'' she says, ''there is no big evil plot out there to keep girls down. It's socialization. But things are going to improve because most parents have been through the deal themselves. They want things to be different for their daughters.''