Commentary: Solving for X

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In the nature vs. nurture debate over why there aren’t more women in the sciences, the nurture side of the equation may have just gotten a boost. A study by two women academics presented in Philadelphia earlier this month suggests that more than other factors, mandatory education in math and science influences how many women earn degrees in those fields.

The study, by University of California at San Diego sociology professor Maria Charles and Western Washington University professor Karen Bradley, looked at the ratio of university diplomas awarded to men and women in math and science fields in 21 countries. Then they compared those ratios to nonscience degree programs.

What they found was startling. For those with degrees in computer sciences, Turkey, South Korea, Ireland and Sweden topped the list of countries where the ratio of men to women graduates came closest.

As a group, these aren’t the most industrialized nations, the most technologically advanced, or the most known for women’s equality—all factors one might reasonably think would influence women’s career choices. What they do have in common, Charles and Bradley found, is that their requirements for math and science coursework are among the highest.

In South Korea (where 1 woman for every 1.92 men earns a computer sciences degree), every student takes math through grade 12, and science through grade 11. Ireland (with a female to male ratio of 1 to 1.84) requires math and science throughout secondary school.

There were some surprises on the high end as well. Australia, Belgium and Denmark, along with the Czech and Slovak republics, saw some of the greatest disparities, with male degree holders outnumbering women more than six to one in those last two countries.

In the United States, the female to male ratio was 1 to 2.1. In Great Britain, 1 to 3.1.

Less surprisingly, Charles and Bradley found that across all countries, men still dominate in math and science fields, while women dominate in traditionally female fields such as education and health care.

The researchers agree that culture beliefs and gender stereotyping play a significant role in what girls choose to study: they choose what others think they’ll be good at.

“There is no doubt that collective beliefs holding that men are naturally ‘better’ at maths and science are major factors that influence women’s choices of college majors—and determine the climate of maths and science programs worldwide,” Charles said.

Those tendencies, she added, appear most prevalent in the most affluent, industrialized societies.

Those choices often first occur as girls hit adolescence—in middle school and early in high school—when students are given more electives and are allowed to pursue courses based on interest.

Programs that mentor girls in elementary and secondary schools and professional organizations at colleges and universities (like those mentioned in our front page stories in this issue) are helping to bring more women into the sciences and keep them interested. But to a large degree, those programs still rely on girls to choose. And although they provide much needed support and encouragement for those who are already inclined toward or interested in math and science, what about the rest? What about the girl whose interest develops later, or those who haven’t heard the message that they can succeed in science and math? What about those who simply shy away from coursework that appears too hard?

Should we, as a nation, be putting more of our educational resources toward requiring advanced science and math classes for all students?

The answer to that question isn’t yet clear, but it is a question that could be answered by rigorous study and additional scientific analysis. Because even if we are going to continue to allow our students to make choices about their education, it’s important to make sure they, and we, have all the facts, not just a bundle of cultural beliefs and stereotypes.

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