October 19, 2017
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Math scores a false argument for gender bias

By Karen Horton, Special to the BDN

In the June 28 editorial “Can Girls Do Math?” the BDN highlighted progress women have made in the fields of science, engineering, technology and mathematics. But obstacles still exist. As a mechanical engineering technology faculty member at the University of Maine, I spend a good deal of time learning about these obstacles and how to remove them.

For example, a false belief about the relationship between math tests and performance in science, engineering, technology and mathematics was highlighted in the editorial. More boys than girls still perform at the very highest level on standardized math tests in the U.S. So what?

Consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most selective technical universities in the world. In 2009, only 15 percent of applicants scoring above 750 of 800 on the SAT math exam were admitted to MIT, while 12 percent of the applicants scoring from 700-740 were admitted. MIT knows that top scores on the math SAT are not the best predictors of success in science, engineering, technology and mathematics careers.

A recent National Academy of Engineering publication asks, “College-educated science, engineering and math professionals make up only 2-3 percent of the U.S. workforce, so shouldn’t they be those in the top 2-3 percent in science and mathematics abilities? … the answer appears to be no.” A recent report by the AAUW, formerly known as the American Association of University Women, states that less than one-third of white men in science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields, excluding biological sciences, scored above 650 on the SAT math test, while more than one-third scored below 550 — the math score of the average humanities major.

How does this play out? Of students taking the 2003 SAT math test, 48 percent scoring 500 or above were women. But National Science Foundation data demonstrates that for the same cohort graduating from college in 2007, only 24 percent of degrees in science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields (excluding biology) were awarded to women. How come?

The NSF identified a key obstacle preventing girls from selecting engineering careers in a qualitative consumer research study which states, “Current engineering messages portray engineering as challenging and stress the importance of superior math and science abilities … . Professional interests for high school girls hinge upon relevance. Relevance incorporates that a job is rewarding, and it suggests that the profession is for someone ‘like me.’”

The myth that extremely high SAT math scores are required for engineering success is propagated in schools and the public, and this needs to stop. What girls need is evidence that they can perform relevant and rewarded work in technical careers.

One response to this study is the PBS show “Design Squad.” High school teams compete for scholarships by taking on challenges such as building the fastest sailboat or building the best T-shirt shooter. Another response is the website “EngineerYourLife,” which highlights films and pictures of young women in interesting engineering careers.

The June 24 edition of the journal Nature does the math to report on gender discrimination in science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields in the wallet, where it really hurts. On average women in these fields in the U.S. earn only about 80 percent of what men earn.

The bill highlighted in the editorial, “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Sciences and Engineering Act” sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, is intended to “minimize the effects of gender bias in the evaluation of federal research grants and in the related academic advancement of the recipients of these grants.” This is a bill to increase fairness in activities of existing federal agencies such as the NSF and thus reduce the chance that our tax dollars will inadvertently support an existing discriminatory pay structure. Math test scores have nothing to do with this bill. Opposition to the bill based on math test scores is just silly.

Karen Horton of Old Town is an associate professor of mechanical engineering technology at the University of Maine.

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