September 21, 2017
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Can Girls Do Math?

Whether girls can do math, science and engineering is an outmoded question these days. Some women do better than some men in those fields. One of the world’s brightest scientists was a woman. Think Marie Curie, who was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. So was her husband, but her name, not Pierre’s, is the one that springs to mind.

Yet women have a harder time than men in getting into scientific study and work.

Lawrence H. Summers, now the chief White House economist, was forced to quit the Harvard presidency by the furor over his remarks about women in science. He was widely misunderstood. At a conference in 2005, he acknowledged that there are many superb woman scientists and that social barriers that kept some women out of scientific fields should be torn down. Still, he raised the question of whether there might be “some very deep forces here that are going to be with us for a long time” that promote men ahead of women at the highest levels.

Across the board, the gender gap in science and engineering is closing, as shown by recent research, but some other investigators support Mr. Summers’ conjecture that men may continue to outnumber women among students with the very top scores.

A science writer in The New York Times, John Tierney, has ventured into this ticklish question. He reports that a team of psychologists at Duke University has focused on people ranking in the top 0.01 percent of the general population, which for a seventh-grader means scoring above 700 on the SAT math test. They found 13 boys for every girl in that group in the early 1980s. By 1991, this gender gap among the very bright had narrowed to 4-1. But since then the ratio has held about steady. And of the 19 students who got perfect scores on the ACT science test in the past 20 years, all but one were boys.

This argument goes on, but it concerns mainly whether females will have a chance at the very highest levels of math and science. It may figure in discussions about gender equity in workshops called for in a little-known bill titled “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act,” sponsored by a Texas Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. But the bill has been stuck in a subcommittee for two years.

The good news for parents whose daughters would like careers in science, math or engineering is that those fields are increasingly open to women. If your daughter likes chemistry sets and quadratic equations, help her go for it. The future is bright.

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