Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dumbing Down

"Girls go to college to get more knowledge.
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider."

This was one of my daughter's favorite rhymes when she was in preschool. We thought it was pretty funny.

She thought it was hi-lar-i-ous.

Back then, there was no question at all about whether girls were as smart as boys (my daughter and her friends knew they were). They learned to read and write and add and subtract side-by-side. Gender differences showed up in the playground, but there was no sense that being a good student made you any more or less feminine.

In primary school, my daughter quickly achieved a reputation for being a math wiz. Her first grade numbers scroll reached an unprecedented length; she solved more (and more difficult) equations than her peers in "mad minutes," and did so with time to spare. In fourth grade, she was selected to participate in an engineering class that was sponsored by Lego Robotics. She and a classmate invented, built and presented an amusement park ride called the "Barf-o-nator 3000."

Sniff, sniff, I was so proud!

Now as an eighth grader, my daughter is in her fifth year of accelerated math. Always an excellent student, she should be on course for more of the same. So, why am I getting worried? It isn't that I think her skills will diminish. In fact, I absolutely refuse to abide by the myth that girls are naturally better at verbal subjects and boys are naturally better at math and science. I know far too many exceptions to that rule, and I myself scored much higher on my math SATs even though I preferred English and Drama and pursued them as majors in college.

Instead, I'm concerned about the gender stereotypes that are still so prevalent in our society and that influence what girls choose to do — and how well they do in what they choose.

According to the National Science Foundation, fourth grade girls and boys are about equally attracted to the subject of science: 66% and 68%. But, at the same time, when asked to draw a scientist, most depict a white male. Any drawings of women scientists are unattractive and sour. By eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in careers in science than girls are. And, that unhappy trend continues through high school and college.

There are a lot of studies that examine this phenomenon. Some focus on teachers. It appears that when a boy asks for help in a math or science class, the teacher coaches him and encourages him to solve the problem himself. When a girl asks, the teacher tends to solve the problem for her. Good-bye, confidence.

Another point of reference is how many college-age women drop out of math and science programs. This is sometimes pointed to as an indication of gender aptitude. However, the women who drop out often do so because they are getting Bs. Men remain in the programs even if they are getting Cs. The female students seem to have much higher expectations in terms of their own performance.

In recent news, two major retailers were accused of selling gender-biased tee shirts. Forever 21's shirt continues the girls-can't-do-math myth by proclaiming that its wearer is "Allergic to Algebra," while J.C. Penny's shirt makes a more general comment about beauty vs. smarts, bragging that "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me." Both stores quickly pulled the shirts from their shelves. But, clearly there were creative teams (and executives) at the companies that saw nothing wrong with those messages.

Of course, girls want to have beauty and brains. But, note that the word "beauty" comes first. If it's an either/or question, girls vote for good looks over good grades. It's no wonder. From the time they were tiny children, they've understood happily ever after to mean a beautiful princess who gets her man. Not a smart academic who gets her PhD in biophysics.

I think my daughter is the most beautiful person in the world. Obviously, I'm a wee bit biased. (All right, extremely biased.) That said, in our society, life is certainly easier for attractive people, so I want her to take care of herself and look her best. But, there is so much more to her than blonde hair and a pretty face! She is smart. She is funny. She is brave and compassionate and honest.

She is good at math.

The perceived conflict between how girls look and how they think is nothing new. So, I'm going to let a very smart woman from more than a century ago speak for me now. Her name is Louisa May Alcott and her characters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy struggled with gender biases as they defined their self-worth in the 1860s. This is one of the many themes of the book that feels relevant today. No wonder it's still so beloved by our own generation of "little women."

In the 1994 movie version (which I highly recommend!), Susan Sarandon tells her daughters ...

"I only care what you think of yourself. If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that that's all you really are. Time erodes all such beauty. But what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your brain, your humor, your kindness and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you."

You hear that, girls? Listen to your Marmee.

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