Commentary

Where the Girls Aren't

What the media missed in the AAUW's report on gender equity.

In May, the American Association of University Women announced the good news that the much-ballyhooed "boys crisis" is a myth. In its study, entitled "Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education," the AAUW reports that both girls and boys are doing better in American schools compared with 30 years ago. Gender gaps in academic achievement are generally small and getting smaller, according to the association. The report has received prominent coverage in all major American media, including Education Week, and the coverage has been almost universally positive. ("AAUW Sees No Educational Crisis for Boys," June 4, 2008.)

But there are substantial holes in the picture the AAUW is trying to paint. Over the past seven years, I have personally visited more than 200 schools around the United States, usually as a provider of professional development related to gender issues. I believe the AAUW report missed the point. There is a real gender gap, and it's growing rapidly, but that gap has little to do with graduation rates or college-entrance rates, parameters that are given great emphasis in the report. The real gender gap is not in ability but in motivation - not in what girls and boys can do, but in what girls and boys want to do: specifically, in what they want to learn, and how they want to learn it.

Illustration by Bob Dahm

Consider: The proportion of young women in the United States studying computer science is no higher today than it was 25 years ago. That may seem puzzling at first, since the past 25 years has been an era in which girls have been encouraged from kindergarten through grade 12 to be physicists, computer scientists, engineers, and the like. Results have been disappointing. In one recent study, researchers asked high school girls who were earning top grades in math or science whether they planned to study physics or engineering at college. Nationwide, boys who earn top grades in math and science often answer yes when asked this question; but girls today almost unanimously answer it NO. The investigators found that these girls have no doubts about their ability to excel in physics or engineering. They know that they are perfectly capable of doing physics or engineering; they just don't want to.

How come? It turns out that the best way to teach physics to girls is different from the best way to teach it to boys. With boys, you start with kinematics and momentum: race cars accelerating, football players colliding, that sort of thing. That approach is less reliably effective with girls. With most girls, a better place to start is with a riddle involving the nature of things: What is the nature of light? Is light a wave? Or is light made up of particles? The girls then discover that light is both a wave and a particle. I just returned from visiting girls' schools in Australia and New Zealand; it's my third visit in three years to single-sex schools in that part of the world. I was impressed, once again, by how well the girls' schools there understand these differences.

Thirty years of politically correct insistence that gender doesn't matter has had the ironic and unintended effect of reinforcing stereotypes.

At the Korowa Anglican Girls School just outside Melbourne, physics instructor Jenn Alabaster showed me how the girls begin their study of physics by considering the wave-particle duality of light. All the girls are fascinated and very 'keen' (as they say in Victoria) to pursue their new interest in physics. At coed schools in the United States, however, the first unit students usually encounter in a high school physics course is kinematics and momentum: drag cars accelerating and football players colliding. The boys think it's cool. The girls drop out of the course (or they don't sign up in the first place), and they take Advanced Placement Spanish instead. In the United States, more than 80 percent of students who take the AP Spanish exam are girls, while more than 75 percent of students taking the physics AP exam are boys. Girls are losing out in physics and computer science, but the AAUW didn't mention that fact.

Why not? Because the AAUW doesn't like single-sex classrooms. "Separate is inherently unequal," according to its position paper on this topic. Any discussion of the declining number of young women studying these subjects might call attention to the one intervention which has consistently been proven to boost those numbers: single-sex classes for girls.


Thirty years of politically correct insistence that gender doesn?t matter has had the ironic and unintended effect of reinforcing gender stereotypes: Fewer men are entering fields such as psychology, journalism, and foreign languages, while fewer women are entering fields such as computer science, physics, and engineering. These trends belie the AAUW?s assertion that gender gaps are closing across the board. Its latest report simply ignores the question of what subjects girls and boys are choosing to study. Indeed, the words "physics" and "computer science" never appear anywhere in the 124-page report. Please bear in mind that this was a report on gender equity in education from an organization that claims to represent the interests of girls and young women.

The report concludes with a lament that women still earn only about 80 percent of what comparably trained men do. Remarkably, it makes no mention of the single biggest contributor to that persistent gender gap; namely, the fact that young women continue to choose professions that pay less well than those chosen by men with similar education. Women remain more likely than men to major in art history and journalism; men are more likely than women to major in computer science, physics, and engineering. A college graduate with a degree in physics or engineering will earn more than a graduate with a degree in art history or journalism, simply because the marketplace values those skills differently. Again, the one intervention proven to increase the numbers of women entering highly paid fields such as engineering - namely, single-sex classes - is scorned by the AAUW on political grounds.

I serve as the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to spread the good news that single-sex classrooms can advantage girls without disadvantaging boys, and vice versa. Girls at girls' schools are several times more likely to study subjects such as computer science, physics, and engineering, compared with girls attending coed schools. Boys at boys' schools are more than twice as likely to study subjects such as art, poetry, and advanced Spanish as boys of comparable ability attending coed schools. Six years ago, when we launched the organization, 11 public schools in the United States offered single-sex classrooms. Right now, 392 public schools offer single-sex classrooms. For the school year that starts this fall, more than 500 will offer single-sex classrooms.

The subtitle of the American Association of University Women's new report is: "The Facts About Gender Equity in Education." A more appropriate subtitle might have been: "Just a Few Selected Facts About Gender Equity in Education." If the organization were genuinely interested in broadening educational horizons for girls, its members would be working with us to help public schools offer more all-girls physics and computer science classes. Unfortunately, they have allowed their short-term political objectives to override their core mission.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Education Week, Vol. 27, Issue 42, Pages 29,36

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Correction: 
A previous version of this essay contained outdated professional information for the author.

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Here are some additional data supplementing this commentary:
In 1986, 15,126 women in the United States earned a bachelor's degree in computer science. By 1998, the number was down to 7,439 -- more than a 50% reduction. These numbers come from the National Science Foundation: the link is http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf07307/pdf/tab34.pdf. In the past five years, the numbers have recovered significantly (although they still have not yet returned to 1986 levels); and, some of that growth appears to be due to women from other countries with temporary visas. The numbers of men earning degrees in computer science dipped, but not nearly to the extent that the women's numbers dropped.

In physics, the important change has been in the country of origin. While the total number of female physics majors was fairly flat from 1986 to 1998 (611 in 1986, 666 in 1998), and has risen slightly since then (to 908 in 2004), there has been a change in nationality. You will find these numbers at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf07307/pdf/tab39.pdf.
In 1986, the great majority of women studying physics at American colleges and universities were American citizens. By 2004, the majority of students earning doctorates in physics at American universities were foreign citizens holding temporary visas. This change is dramatically illustrated by a graph from the American Institute of Physics, at this link: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/ed/fig2.jpg. Likewise in electrical engineering: in 1987, 3,564 women earned bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering, and the majority of those women were American citizens. By 1996, the number had dropped to 1,992. By 2006, the numbers had recovered to 3,032; however, many of those women were from other countries, with temporary visas. You will find these numbers at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf07307/pdf/tab51.pdf. In 2006, a total of 7,026 women were earning graduate degrees in electrical engineering, at American universities; but only 2,315 of those women were citizens of the United States. The majority of women earning graduate degrees in electrical engineering - 4,711 to be precise - were women were from other countries, holding temporary visas. You will find these numbers at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf08306/pdf/tab17.pdf. In other words, more than two out of three women earning graduate degrees in electrical engineering at American universities right now are women from other countries, with temporary visas. A similar ratio holds for men: less than one-third of men now earning graduate degrees in electrical engineering at American universities are American citizens. But men overall still outnumber women overall by more than three-to-one.
American women overall now constitute less than one-third of students earning degrees at American universities in computer science, physics, and electrical engineering. The recent growth in the total numbers of women earning degrees in these subjects is in many cases due to an increase in the numbers of women coming to the United States from other countries.

Additional resources on this topic:

--Leonard Sax MD PhD