Try as we can there seems yet to be a satisfactory explanation for why so many more men than women have careers and hold the top ranks in the sciences. In 2005, former advisor to President Obama and then-president of Harvard Larry Summers famously explained that it was because women just didn’t have the same “aptitude” for math and science. But short of Ivy League, Wall Street mansplaining, what does account for the gap? Researchers think they are closing in on an answer.
A new clue provides more credence to the argument that cultural forces rather than biological determinism keep girls away from scientific careers in the states. A test, given in 65 developed countries by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that among a representative sample of 15-year-olds worldwide, girls generally outperform boys in science. That is, everywhere except the United States.
The New York Times has a breakdown of the tests and the results are fascinating, though in some ways expected. Andreas Schliecher, who oversees the tests, explained to the New York Times that different countries offer different incentives for learning science and math. In the United States, boys are more likely than girls to “see science as something that affects their life.” He isn’t the only one. “We see that very early in childhood — around age 4 — gender roles in occupations appear to be formed,” said Christianne Corbett, co-author of the 2010 report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” told the New York Times. “Women are less likely to go into science careers, although they are clearly capable of succeeding.”
Okay, the idea of girls in this country being pressured away from the sciences is nothing new, but given the ubiquity of these forces globally, what separates the United States from other countries like Russia? Opportunity. Russia, Asia and the Middle East already have a higher proportion of women in science and engineering, which means we’ve entered into a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: low numbers of women in the profession leads to low numbers of recruits. Low number of recruits means pushing more women into more positions just isn’t happening like we need it to.
For that change to happen, girls need to dream beyond the princess. Or we need to do a better job explaining that magic and science co-exist. Imagine the possibilities.
Photo from edenpictures via flickr.