Why Janie can't (or won't) add. Math and science still look intimidating to girls; teachers want to do something about it

WHEN she was 7, she wanted to be a pilot. When she was 10, she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. At 14, in a surprising switch, she announced that she planned to ``marry a rich guy'' and spend her days playing tennis and bridge at a country club.

Now, at 16, her goals have shifted again, and she talks about working as a photojournalist or a TV reporter.

So goes the changing career cycle of one fairly typical teen-age girl. In the '80s, the question ``What do you want to be when you grow up?'' allows answers unimagined by earlier generations. No longer limited to the old secretary-teacher-nurse triad of careers, these young women enjoy a heady sense of possibility and choice. Lawyer, doctor, corporate executive -- why not?

Yet in one area the limits still seem to apply. While women's enrollments in math and science have increased in the last decade, many teen-age girls continue to sidestep advanced math and science courses and to reject careers in scientific and technological fields. As a result, women remain seriously underrepresented in jobs requiring math and science knowledge.

So persistent and troubling is the problem that Girls Clubs of America, a national nonprofit organization, is hosting a three-day conference on math, science, and technology education for girls, beginning today in Indianapolis. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the meeting seeks ways to sustain girls' interest in math and science -- interest that traditionally drops precipitously in high school.

``It's a curious phenomenon,'' says Heather Johnston Nicholson, director of Girls Clubs National Resource Center, in Indianapolis. ``After a couple of decades of attention to the appropriateness of math and science for women, the drop-off in girls' interest just hasn't been eliminated.''

Girls perform as well as boys in math and science through the middle school years, she notes. ``It's only in high school, when young people begin to elect their own courses, that the difference in performance appears. Even so, it's not a very big difference through high school, especially when young people have been in the same courses.''

Some differences do show up on standardized admissions tests. Girls' scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests have been going down, with boys' 1986 scores an average of 50 points higher in math and 11 points higher in verbal sections. Some researchers blame the tests themselves, pointing out that there are fewer women test-writers today and that more questions in the verbal section are put in a scientific context. Others say that an increasing number of girls are taking the test, with many more coming from lower socioeconomic levels.

Part of the reason for girls' lower performance in math and science, Dr. Nicholson explains, stems from subtle messages to girls of all ages ``that math and science are less relevant to them. What makes the difference is whether you think math is appropriate for you and whether you are good at it. Those are two things we need to assure girls about.''

In computer use, for instance, such seemingly minor factors as where the computer is located and who determines access to it can affect girls' performance. ``If a computer is in a science room or a math room, girls are less likely to go there,'' Nicholson says. ``A library is a more neutral place. Similarly, if computer use is first-come, first-served, more boys than girls are likely to be assertive enough to get time. It's more sex-neutral to have to sign up in advance, so adults have control over the access.

``If you multiply this subtle kind of factor by enough times and do it in math, science, and computer use and technology, you can get a very different kind of environment for girls and boys, a very different set of messages. That in turn results in a continuation of higher proportions of scientists and engineers who are male.''

These subtle messages are exacerbated by what has been called ``gender intensification'' as girls reach early adolescence. ``Girls are more female at 14 than they are at 10, and more different from boys,'' she continues. ``As a specifically female concept of adulthood becomes a part of identity, the way girls think about themselves or measure themselves changes.''

As one example, she says, ``Girls at 10 run as fast as they can. Girls at 12 start running `cute.' That kind of change may have quite a bit to do with why girls drop out of math and science. It just may not be `cute' to be an astronaut.''

Referring to the teen-ager described above, whose career choices shifted from pilot and astronaut to photojournalist, Nicholson adds, ``Her sense of adventure is now constrained by her sense of femininity.''

Beyond the gender gap in high school math and science, there exists a second problem: an ethnic gap.

``Girls of color probably face a double barrier,'' Nicholson says. ``Very often the resources in schools attended by significant numbers of minority young people are less. It's a special challenge there to try to overcome some of the educational barriers that minority children in our society face on every front and that are especially acute in math and science.''

Even when minority students have demonstrated interest and ability in scientific and technical fields, they may face special financial challenges.

``In the 1960s and 1970s, opportunities for financial support were extended to low-income students,'' says Gwendolyn Lewis, a senior policy analyst at the College Board in Washington, D.C. ``In the 1980s, these funds have not kept up with inflation. Levels of individual support are sufficiently low that most disadvantaged students still go to two-year colleges. If you're going to be a scientist or an engineer, this is not the place to do it. Many don't proceed to four-year schools. Very few of those people end up being scientists or engineers.''

In addition, according to Nicholson, only about two percent of girls aspire to occupations in skilled crafts, the relatively highly paid, non-college-based careers. ``We'd like to see a much higher proportion of girls in technical schools and apprenticeships in areas that are not traditional for girls and may require confidence in one's math ability.''

These efforts to encourage girls in nontraditional fields become more urgent in view of women's changing employment patterns. Nine out of 10 girls today will work for 25 to 45 years, according to a Girls Clubs report. Two out of five will be responsible for families as ``heads of households.''

What will it take to change attitudes and inform a new generation of girls and young women about possibilities for careers in math, science, and technology?

First, specialists say, teachers must know how to support girls' interest in these fields. One 10-year-old program, EQUALS, based at Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, works with elementary and secondary teachers to keep more young women in math and computer science classes. And a Girls Clubs program, Operation SMART (Science, Math, and Relevant Technology), provides informal math, science, and technology education to girls aged 6 to 18.

Other suggestions include requiring boys and girls to take the same kinds of courses. ``This is very serious in secondary schools -- girls self-select themselves out of advanced courses,'' says Marlaine Lockheed, a sociologist at the World Bank and a scheduled speaker at the Girls' Clubs conference.

In addition, Nicholson says, ``We have to alert parents that the average school counselor is much too overworked to be necessarily giving good advice to every student about enrollment in courses. And we need the cooperation of parents and teachers with community resources that can help do the trick, such as youth organizations, children's and science museums, nature centers of all kinds, college and university faculty who are delighted to be role models, and especially technically based businesses.''

Nancy Kreinberg, director of EQUALS and a conference participant, concurs. ``It takes a lot more effort, a lot more programs, a lot more continuing intervention than we had originally expected,'' she observes. ``You have to reach parents, teachers, administrators, and community groups. You have to be talking to legislators, and the media has to be concerned.

``I think we will see these gains eventually,'' she adds. ``It's just going to take longer than we would wish to achieve equity.''

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