Monday, January 11, 2010

Dealing with the Impact of Societal Biases on Mathematically/Scientifically Gifted Girls

I have a daughter highly gifted in areas typically dominated by men, and I constantly worry about the impact that societal biases could have on her passions and career choice. Fortunately, I have not encountered any problems so far, but I am concerned that this period of bliss may not last. Is there anything I could do to help her explore and develop her talents while preparing her to deal successfully with society's stereotypical biases?

Many parents are well aware that little girls are far more verbal than boys, but I believe that behavior, attitudes, and learning styles are far more diverging. It is instructive to think about how girls socialize and compare it with how boys do it. Girls can sit quietly for long stretches of time focused on tasks that would drive insane a boy of any age. I was largely unaware of this until I observed my daughter playing with other kids. A few girls-only birthday parties drove the stereotype even deeper into my mind. Girls and boys really do come from different planets. While boys are happiest running around, pushing each other, and generally competing physically to establish some sort of pecking order, girls can sit for hours talking and playing pretend. My seven year-old daughter sums it up better than anybody else:
Girls are smarter than boys because boys are coo-coo and just like to run around and cannot pay attention in school.

My key observation here is that societal expectations and intrinsic, gender differences must have deep implications for learning styles. Yet, we teach boys and girls exactly the same way and do little to encourage kids to explore all possible carriers. For instance, very few boys go into nursing despite a clear, current and projected shortage of front-line, medical professionals. An small number of girls choose carriers in math, science, and engineering. Studies suggests that this phenomenon can be partially explained by the impact of society's expectations for each gender. However, it is also a fact, in my opinion, that boys and girls learn differently, and this leads to girls becoming bored with scientific in high school. Child rearing also has an impact, but it generally does not come into play until after college. It follows that societal pressures, stereotypes, and differences in learning styles may be the most important explanatory variables. There could be biological reasons as well, but I tend to discount this explanation and believe that while there could some relationship, it is probably much weaker than generally believed. Hence, we are back to my original question. Is there anything I could do to help my daughter explore and develop her talents while preparing her to deal effectively with society's stereotypical biases?

I have had pre-conceptions about gender-specific aptitudes for as long as I can remember, but I always have tried to keep an open mind. Unfortunately, as is the case with race, we are bombarded daily with stereotypical messages. Everybody is a bigot to some degree, but most of our biases are unconscious. However, this is irrelevant. The point is that we have them, and they affect the way we raise our children. This is a particularly tough problem for parents of girls gifted in areas typically dominated by men. I have never thought that men are smarter than women. For instance, my mother is, by far, one of the smartest people I have ever known. However, I always have had a feeling that men tend to be better than women at math. The reality is that so few women go into math and even fewer make it into the upper echelons of the profession. What worries me now is that I have a daughter who is extremely talented in math and will undoubtedly face some of the same stereotypes that I and the rest of society have always forced onto women. What can I do to help her deal with this issue? I do not know if my daughter will become a scientist, mathematician, or something altogether different. Yes, iIt would make me happy if she chose such a career because I value the pursuit of knowledge, and she has innate abilities. However, Paulina also loves to dance, make up stories, and create works of art. Hence, she could end up doing pretty much anything -- other than singing, since it is pretty clear she will not make a good living performing. However, I cannot let societal stereotypes and misconceptions influence her choice of profession.

My daughter has exhibited abilities in multiple areas, but it does appear that mathematics is her biggest strength,and I have observed that people tend to specialize in subjects that leverage their skills. Hence, it is a reasonable guess that my daughter could choose a career in math, science, or engineering. Hence, I wonder how I can help her gain sufficient confidence to fight stereotypes. I also want her to avoid the "dumb-down" tendencies common in many smart teenage girls who avoid being intellectual hoping to be accepted by boys. I know of no easy answer to my question.

My wife and I have thought about sending our daughter to a private, all-girls school. My daughter is friends with many boys, and she participates in lots of extracurricular activities where she gets to interact with the opposite sex. Hence, we are not very concerned with the socialization problems typically associated with single-sex schools. Another approach we are employing is to introduce her to as many female role models as we possibly can. We think this may help convince our daughter that she can do whatever she chooses to. Finally, we divide who works on what with Paulina. My wife handles writing and the arts. I handle math, science, and computers. We do it this way simply because those are the areas where each of us excels. However, it may turn out to be a lucky choice after all. Doing math and science with my daughter may persuade her that it is acceptable for women to pursue careers in math or science. Beyond this, we are not sure what we could or should do.

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