By Abigail Ann Fraeman
I think of myself as a girl, and as a student interested in math and science. Until the recent stir over remarks by Harvard's president, I never much thought of myself specifically as a girl interested in science, nor did I feel that I was anything scarce or unusual.
I once heard that all children are born artists and musicians, and they continue to be artists and musicians until someone tells them that they're not. Perhaps that's what happens with girls and science. Girls in elementary school are just as interested in science and math as boys, but somehow the girls are getting the message that they're not supposed to be scientists and mathematicians.
In my case, no one ever told me that girls aren't supposed to "do" math and science. My family and my teachers were always encouraging. My mother went to MIT to study science back in the 1970s, when it was even less common for girls to go into science. So my family viewed my interest in science, which started back in elementary school, as being perfectly normal. I have been enrolled in math-science magnet schools since middle school with other girls like me, so being a girl interested in science seemed normal at school, too.
What turns off other girls, and how do we fix that? How do we prevent girls from falsely believing that they're not supposed to be interested in math and science?
I wish I knew how to answer those questions, but I don't. Because I always had the support from my family, my teachers, and my peers, I'm sure that the answer lies somewhere in the complicated mix of how parents support their children, how teachers encourage their students, and how girls respond to their peers.
What I do know is that science would benefit greatly from more gender balance -- precisely because boys and girls are different. I'm not saying that one is better or smarter than the other. I'm simply saying there is a difference. I have personally observed how boys and girls often think differently and approach problems differently, and sometimes one approach is more productive or effective than the other.
For three years in middle school, a group of my girl friends and I entered a science competition called Final Frontiers. We had to build the strongest but lightest bridge, the slowest rolling device, or the device that most accurately propelled a piece of clay. The boys in my school entered this competition, too, but they tended to work alone and be more individually competitive.
On the other hand, we girls worked cooperatively. We didn't compete with each other -- we shared our ideas and insights. Even at that young age, we realized that the whole was greater than the sum of the individual parts. And the girl teams ended up walking away with several First Place awards for three years in a row, due, I'm sure in a large part, to our cooperative efforts.
Currently, I attend a nationally known math-science magnet high school where everyone is amazingly smart in math. But within this population of high-achieving math students, I've noticed that the boys generally do better than the girls in very difficult math competitions, such as the Maryland Mathematics League Examination and the USA Mathematical Olympiad. However, my math teacher has commented that girls usually do better on their homework, turn in more organized work, and get better grades in class.
Do these observations mean boys are smarter than girls in math in this cluster of mathematically gifted students? No. All we can conclude is that the boys tend to be more competitive, while the girls seem predisposed to be more focused and organized. The boys are not necessarily smarter in math because they score higher in those difficult competitions, nor are the girls necessarily smarter because they get better grades in class. Each metric measures a different strength.
How can science -- or any field, for that matter -- not benefit when people with different strengths and different ways of approaching problems work together? Science will definitely benefit from a better gender balance.
Fraeman was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search