Column: In science, girls still face hurdles

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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As physics teacher Chris Bruhn found out, the videotape doesn’t lie.

He thought he treated all his students the same, boys and girls. In his earlier days as an aerospace engineer, he’d noticed how few women had followed his career path. Now he was determined to make sure girls felt comfortable in his classroom.

But when he set up a video camera and watched himself teach, he discovered something.

“I would let the boys interrupt the girls when the girls were speaking,” said Mr. Bruhn, who taught this year at both Woodrow Wilson and W.T. White high schools in Dallas. “But I wouldn’t let the girls do the same. So the girls learned to be quiet in class, and the boys learned to be loud.”

For decades, we’ve heard about the gender gap in math and science. Those subjects are for boys, the stereotype went, let the girls do well in English. Well, good news: Girls have just about closed the math gap, if scores on this year’s TAKS tests are any evidence.

And while the science gap persists, there’s hope that a little teacher introspection – and perhaps a few VHS tapes – may yet close it.

“Kids are told their entire lives that science is for boys,” said Jo Sanders, a Seattle-based education consultant. “That’s the message they get on television, in the movies, from their parents, from video games. That’s what teachers are up against.”

Ms. Sanders is working with AP Strategies, a Dallas-based educational nonprofit, on something called the Gender Equity Project. It’s sponsored by the Dallas Women’s Foundation and Texas Instruments.

First, though, the numbers.

School officials are used to slicing and dicing their test scores by race and poverty. The state requires them to. But a different story emerges if you slice them by sex.

Girls have taken a substantial lead in subjects that involve writing. The female passing rate on the English language arts TAKS this year was 10.5 percentage points higher than the male rate. The gaps were smaller but still significant in writing (6.5 percentage points) and reading (3.4). In math and social studies, boys and girls essentially tied. But in science, boys still have the edge, by 6.3 percentage points.

Since last fall, Ms. Sanders has been working with a group of 14 Dallas science and technology teachers on examining the ways they teach their subjects to girls. One of the assignments was the self-observation Mr. Bruhn did.

“I noticed that when we did a lab experiment, the boys would typically monopolize the equipment,” he said. “The girls would see themselves as the note takers.”

Other teachers found similar gaps – some the result of teacher attitudes, some the result of student attitudes. Studies have shown that many science teachers call on boys more often than girls in class. When they call on boys, they’re willing to wait longer for an answer than they are with girls. And they often let boys talk more and more often.

“I was extremely skeptical at first,” said Walter Dewar, AP Strategies’ executive vice president and a former high school math teacher. “But I think it’s true that most science teachers’ teaching styles favor males.”

None of that makes them bad people.

“These are well-meaning teachers,” Ms. Sanders said. “These stereotypes have been pressed into all of us for many years,” she said, the result of cultural hints large and small that science isn’t for girls.

Why have girls achieved parity in math but not in science? Ms. Sanders suspects it’s because the women’s movement has focused on math more and for decades. Science and technology haven’t been in the gender spotlight for nearly as long.

She also said girls tend to do better in subjects that are less abstract and theoretical. Girls do well in biology, for instance, but less so in physics.

The best part? Once teachers and students are conscious of their habits, stereotypes aren’t that hard to beat, Ms. Sanders said.

I can already hear the men in the audience: “But what about the boys?”

Girls have an even bigger edge in literary subjects than boys have in science. Why do people care so much about the girls who don’t know a phylum from fusion and not about the boys who can’t string together three sentences?

Jo Sanders agrees with you.

“There’s been a movement focusing on math and science for girls,” she said. “There’s no comparable group standing up for the boys. There should be.

“Whether we’re talking about boys or girls, it’s not healthy for society if half the population thinks some subject is automatically not for them,” she said.