Mark Perry takes aim at this article in the Chronicle for Higher Education that says structural barriers in education prevent women from going into math and science. Summarizing from 2009 SAT report from the College Board he writes:

1. The average number of years of math study for boys and girls in high school is almost identical: 3.9 years for boys and 3.8 years for girls.

2. The average number of years of science study for girls (3.5 years) in high school is almost the same as for boys (3.6 years).

3. High school girls had exactly the same math GPA as boys of 3.14, and a slightly higher average GPA for science (3.27) than boys (3.23).

4. More girls take biology and chemistry (55%) in high school than boys (45%), i.e. 122 girls per 100 boys.

5. There are 127 girls taking high school AP/Honors science classes for every 100 boys.

6. For high school students reporting more than four years of math study, the percentages are equal by gender: 50% of boys and 50% of girls take more than four years of math.

7. Both 50% of boys and 50% of girls in high school report that calculus is the highest level of high school mathematics taken.

8. More high school girls than boys took AP Honors math courses, by a ratio of 117 girls for every 100 boys.Bottom Line: The evidence shows that high school girls are equally prepared, if not more prepared (more AP math and science classes), than high school boys for college programs in math, science and engineering. ...

I wonder if it's not so much structural barriers as it is the relentless cultural message that girls aren't as good at these things as boys, and, even if they are, math and science majors and careers are more masculine than feminine. When I was in third grade (forgive the bragging) and got the class award for "math whiz" one of the boys in class loudly protested "but she's a GIRL!" I can't count how many times I was told to "not worry my pretty little head" about certain math/science things by men (I wish it were an exaggeration but those were the exact words), and on numerous occasions when I was older, when someone in the course of life had a math related problem, they would mention it in the group of people we were with, I would offer a solution, only to have a man immediately say "no, that's not right", only to give the same exact solution a minute later. It doesn't help when apresident of a prestigous university chalks it all up to innate differences. So much of the message is conveyed in subtle, unremarkable ways, but the amassed force of it over a lifetime shouldn't be underestimated. I got this message my whole life, and frankly it worked.

Posted by: Katherine | Jan 15, 2010 at 10:43 AM

Its an interesting question, isn't it? I've read of studies that report that when math and science capabilities are plotted on graph that males tend to have more occurrences at the extremes (not capable and highly capable.) That, only with some amount of gender bias might explain why there are so few women at the absolute pinnacle of these professions. However, across the broad range of professions that use math and science, there wouldn't be that much difference.

Another set of studies suggests that women more often seek an applied outlet for their math/science abilities than men do. They tend to see their lives in more holistic terms and want have more holisitic applications. More men are drawn to pure science and mathematics. If true, is the difference a nature or nurture difference?

Also, I think math and science are fields that require uninterrupted learning and devotion. Stopping for a few years and returning is professionally limiting. Though there has been change, women are still seen as the primary child care givers. Family demands have inordinately stronger limitation on women versus men.

Then, as you say, there is the simple stereotypes of gender capabilities.

How much weight to play to any or all of the above I don't know. But I don't think the primary issue is educational opportunity any longer.

Posted by: Michael W. Kruse | Jan 15, 2010 at 11:48 AM