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by Judy Antell

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It is big news that for the first time, girls won the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.  In both the individual and team competitions, female students won the top prize.  Eleven of the 20 finalists were girls, with girls outnumbering boys for the first time as finalists.

   Coincidentally, K’Nex, the toy construction system, announced the winners of its building competition. All 10 finalists were boys.

   Despite the heartening Siemens Competition result, I don’t know why it’s so difficult to interest girls in math and science.  I actually loved both as a child; I even committed the ‘social suicide’ of becoming a Mathlete, a member of a team where we competed in math problems.  My three girls are all strong math students, but profess to hate the subject.  When my 14-year-old was asked last year to join the math team, she refused to even consider the offer.

   Ironically, almost every doctor my daughters see is a woman, but being a scientist is viewed as a male pursuit.  They conveniently ignore all the science classes that would be required for medical school. And when I think back about activities we did when they were younger, we always conducted lots of science experiments and made frequent, enjoyable trips to science museums. So why is science now a “boy thing”?  Why was the math team in middle school all boys?  At the end of fourth grade, my youngest daughter’s class put together a yearbook. All the girls chose social studies, reading or writing as favorite subjects, while most of the boys chose science (that noone chose math speaks to a separate, disturbing education issue).

   At the high school my older daughters attend, all the math and science teachers so far have been women, and the English and social studies teachers are men.  And the principal is a woman (same with their elementary schools and middle schools).  So they have seen women in power, and men in less traditional roles.  But they recognize that it is unusual to have a strong female candidate for President, and they know that most countries are run by men. 

   Two recent books. The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls illustrate the dichotomy between what’s expected of different genders.  The ‘boy’ book has information on building treehouses and go-karts, making the best paper airplanes, and fishing.  The ‘girl’ book explores more sedentary pursuits — what is ‘daring’ about making a friendship bracelet or performing a cartwheel?  Boys have LEGOS, K’Nex, Erector sets (does anyone have Erector sets anymore?), while girls have American Girl dolls and The Littlest Pet Shop.  Boys who don’t want to make a cuddly stuffed animal at Build-a-Bear can head to a more boy-oriented retail concept, Robot Galaxy, where they make robots.

   As parents, we need to make sure that our expectations of our children’s gender roles give them room to experiment.  I know a boy who loved makeup and musical theater when he was younger; as he grew into his teenage years, he became more interested in football and video games.  But when a tomboyish girl suddenly develops an interest in fashion and hair, we should make sure that she doesn’t abandon math and science on the way.


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