“Girls’ brains aren’t good with science and math.”

11 April 2012

Many, many thanks to Jen for sending me a link to this graphic she’s designing to combat myths about women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Click on it to get a larger image and decipher the footnotes. I’m curious, are any of my readers in STEM? And does the logic of this graph — that women are discouraged to proceed into those fields — ring true? Because I’m getting sick of these arguments that take culture out of the equation. (Just yesterday, news broke that Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin repealed the state’s equal pay law, a move defended by a crony who pronounces that “money is more important” to men than women.)

Thanks again, Jen and the team at EngineeringDegree.net — and I hope the rest of you have more to say about these hoary stereotypes. How much do you want to bet that women who are good at STEM regularly face charges that they are a) bitchez, or b) too talented to be women at all, à la Brittney Griner?

17 Responses to ““Girls’ brains aren’t good with science and math.””

  1. Becky Says:

    I have an advanced degree in Health Care, i.e. I am an advanced practice nurse. Does that count? Yes, I was discouraged a lot by the culture, and by other women when I was deciding on my career. I really wanted to be a doctor. My parents did not discourage me, but we were lower middle class, and I was fearful about the money. Combine money fear with cultural discouragement, and I gave it up without too much of a fight.

    • Didion Says:

      That sounds quite similar to a story one of my undergrads told me — she decided to go into biology rather than chemistry because there were two older girls in her dorm who were biology majors, and those women made the major more welcoming than the generally more dismissive men in the chemistry program. But I seldom keep in touch with many students beyond the undergrad phase, so I don’t get to hear as much about cases like yours in which people make life decisions due to financial concerns. But especially now, I imagine many, many women are making decisions like yours. Thanks, Becky, for this.

      I heard from quite a few young Latinas, especially those who were the first in their families to go to college at all, that their families viewed all their academic ambitions with skepticism. One spluttered that her father viewed her as some kind of Amazon for going to college rather than getting married. I think it made her a better feminist to have such a retrograde sparring partner in her father!

  2. Aldine Says:

    anyone who needs further convincing should read this book. It’s an unputdownable foray into how gender differences are created and sustained. And it has the added bonus of being extremely funny.


  3. RAFrenzy Says:

    My degree is bent toward mathematics, and for many years I worked very successfully in IT. At the time, I was one of very few females. Despite that, I have never thought females were typically inferior to males in math or technical pursuits. I give my father credit for my viewpoint. He believed I could do anything with my brain that a male could do.

    • Didion Says:

      I got huge support from my parents too — but for non-STEM subjects. Now that I think about it, I was probably supported even more when I announced I didn’t want to take chemistry in high school. Sigh. Perhaps the right word is “enabled”.

  4. Didion, have you read any of JoAnn Deak’s work, or the Sadker report? Both help to disprove the garbage about women not able to learn math and science, like that FOOL Larry Summers.

  5. Hi Didion,

    I’ve been working with science outreach programming for the last 25 years–with a particular emphasis on reaching underrepresented groups, women and minorities. We are making strides, but peer pressure on girls to conform to a “girly, princess” image is still out there. There are important “junctures” when mentoring can make a difference in supporting a young person’s talent and aptitude for science–specifically that Junior High/Middle School age group. Here are two peer reviewed journal articles that address these issues:

    Muller, P. A., Stage, F. K., and Kinzie, J. (2001). Science achievement growth trajectories:
    Understanding the factors related to gender and racial-ethnic differences in precollege
    science achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (4), 981-1012.

    (This was a large longitudinal study over 12 years, tracking students and their educational and career choices. Basically, they found that the more exposure students have to math and science, the better they are at it. Common sense, but when school districts are parsing their funding and deciding who benefits, it makes a difference which students they choose to support
    with funding for their educational aspirations.)

    Ma, X. and Willms, J. D. (1999) Dropping out of advanced mathematics: How much do
    students and schools contribute to the problem? Educational Evaluation and Policy
    Analysis, 21 ( 4): 365-383.
    (This study posits that those “critical junctures” of intervention are key in supporting
    students and their potential.)

    And several studies point to the vast untapped potential and talent in these groups for science and math. Here is a link to a National Science Foundation web site with links for statistics about women and minorities in science:


    And for the last 21 years, I have helped organize career exploration conferences at my university–Expanding Your Horizions (EYH)–that provides career exploration conferences for young girls (4 – 10th grade) to help enthuse them about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) through hands-on workshops doing science and math (not just sitting and listening), meeting with women in STEM professionals as role models, and employer exhibits, and Mystery Women (the students have to ask them what they do in their careers and then figure out their occupation). There are about 60 higher education chapters and conferences that they put on annually nationwide. Here is the link to the national organization’s site: http://www.expandingyourhorizons.org

    Cheers! Grati ;->

    P.S. My Ph.D– that I’m now in the dissertation proposal phase on–will focus on women and minority students in science graduate studies and how they successfully navigate the higher education system to earning their Ph.D.s

    • Didion Says:

      Grati, this is great — a few years ago my university conducted a widespread study on women faculty and their experience and/or feelings about gender equity on campus and the conversation was positively chilling from the female STEM faculty. Even knowing what I know about inequity, I could not believe some of the stories they told about systematic, intentional pay inequities and open sexism. Those dudes were angry about there being any women at all in their departments. I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a grad student to absorb some of that bullshit taking place at the faculty level.

      In the meantime, I’m checking out these pieces….

  6. Ruth Shehigian Says:

    My daughter is a chemical engineering major. I worked SO hard for 18 years to make sure she knew she was smart enough and capable enough to do anything. It is a hard world for girls in academia

  7. RAFrenzy Says:

    When I was a kid, which was a long time ago, I witnessed my mother entering “a man’s profession.” I was in junior high, and she had graduated from college suma cum laude, made a good score on the LSAT, had some references which others would have killed for (U.S. Attorney, U.S. judges, district judges yada, yada), and there were still law schools that would not take her because she was married with children. We had a dear friend who had retired from teaching at one of the law schools, and he was infuriated that they had not let her into that one. He called to find out what was going on, and they told him off the record that it was because she was a wife and mother. That was 40+ years ago, and obviously I haven’t forgotten.

    One thing I’ve been proud of, besides my mother’s academic and professional accomplishments, is she has never held a grudge about this. She kept moving and had a very successful career as an attorney and retired a few years ago due to a bout with cancer. Along the way she encouraged many young women to pursue their dreams and not let people’s prejudices stop them, and a great part of that was continuing to be gracious while not backing up. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for activism, but I’ve found it works best as an individual. My profession was also very much a man’s profession at one time, and I caught hell when I was first working with a bunch of old engineers who were decidedly not used to being around women. Ten years later when I left that place to start a business, all of those old codgers were at my going away party as my close friends. Even though I had never made an issue of feniminsm, all of them through the years told me they had been wrong about women and I had been instrumental in changing their minds. A couple of those guys even became activist of a type for women. I’d like to think I really was instrumental in that.

    I guess the reason I’m coming with this comment, is I’m sure there are those parents of very young women and/or young women themselves reading this and wondering what working life will be like as a woman in a field that may still be prejudiced. Do your job well, hold your head up, be kind to other no matter how they may disgrace themselves in small thinking and chances are good the prejudice will not defeat you.

  8. […] the cleverest spoof ever! Sure makes the efforts of Jen and her compatriots to dismantle the “girls just aren’t good with science and math” myth look crazy serious, which is very […]

  9. Christian Says:

    The statistics presented in girls having the drop in confidence positively correlates with the amount of estrogen produced after that period. Hormonally, girls change. Just as boys. Often times you will have boys goofing off in more extreme fashions, attempting more risky behaviors, etc. To blame either of these changes on societal pressures alone is ignorant and enabling.

    • Didion Says:

      “Correlates” is not the same in evidentiary fact as “scientific studies show that estrogen causes failures in confidence.” Indeed, there are no such studies about a biological cause for estrogen. (I looked.) Think about it: how would you test for such a direct relationship?

      Thanks for explaining, however, that I am ignorant and enabling. I love it when “science” helps me understand myself better.

      Rather, the change is historical. Starting in the mid-1980s, girls began to equal and then exceed the boys in virtually all studies, not to mention aggregate SAT scores and college admissions. The reason why colleges now have approximately 57% female, 43% male college populations: women send in more impressive applications with better grades, scores, and other qualifications. The problem isn’t confidence; women have plenty of it, and it measurably makes them 57% more attractive to admissions departments.

      Here’s a scientific experiment: staff an engineering department with equal numbers of male and female faculty — faculty who aren’t saddled with “scientific” views of estrogen “correlates” — and see what kinds of students enter and succeed in the program at both the grad and undergrad levels. And then we’ll have a conversation about nature vs. culture.

      • Christian Says:

        You are right, you couldn’t do a test for a direct relationship because it would be too hard to isolate the necessary biological variables from social/psychological and other biological variables. By correlating I meant linking, and I if you understand the effects that estrogen levels (or testosterone levels) have on a given human brain you wouldn’t need SAT scores and admissions statistics to validate your points. I wouldn’t doubt any of these points you presented to be true, as in my own subjective experiences, females have been overwhelmingly more organized, structured, and efficient in scholarly applications. However, I have also noticed many male counterparts being able to think more abstractly and reason with the principles they were taught, applying them to new ideas with critical thinking. I don’t believe one is better than the other. And just so we are clear, do you understand the effects of testosterone and estrogen? And why men TEND to engage in more risky behaviors post-pueberty? Do you understand the role that hormones play in peoples’ behavior? I am not being patronizing, honestly asking. And I didn’t intend to come off critical or call YOU enabling, I meant not considering a biological standpoint can be a flaw.

      • Didion Says:

        Sounds like a job for biologists who specialize in hormones.

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