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August 8 2016

Women, Calculus, and the Gender Discrimination Claims that Don’t Add Up

Acculturated
Carrie L. Lukas

A recent study may provide insight into why college women are more likely than men to leave science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) majors, and what could be done to solve this problem.

Researchers discovered that first-year calculus class leads many students—but particularly women—to drop out of STEM. Why are women more likely to make an exit? As Education Week reports, women on average start and end their first college calculus course with less confidence in their math skills compared to similarly-skilled male peers. The study suggests that boosting women’s confidence and encouraging them to stick with STEM in spite of Calculus 1 could dramatically increase the number of female STEM majors and women in these lucrative fields.

This is worthy research with important, actionable implications.

Yet there’s always something frustrating about reporting on this topic, which invariably implies that women’s comparative lack of engagement in STEM is society’s failure and an outgrowth of a systematic sexism that undervalues women’s education and abilities.

The actual facts about America’s educational system tell a very different story. Yes, there are areas of study in which men outperform women—and this could partially be a result of a failure of educators to optimally engage women—but there are also plenty of disciplines that women dominate and it’s men who are being given the short-shift in terms of educational opportunities and attention.

For example, the OECD’s report, “Gender Equality in Education,” studied differences in aptitude, behavior and confidence among boys and girls throughout the developed world and identified areas in which both sexes need more support:

[This report] tries to determine why 15-year-old boys are more likely than girls, on average, to fail to attain a baseline level of proficiency in reading, mathematics and science, and why high-performing 15-year-old girls still underachieve in areas such as mathematics, science and problem solving when compared to high performing boys.

Both are worthy questions and something our policymakers and education leaders should consider. Unfortunately, in the United States, at least, it seems there has been herculean effort aimed at addressing women’s STEM engagement deficit, but far less consideration about how to help more boys and young men succeed in school.

What might be called the education establishment’s enthusiasm deficit in favor of girls is especially notable since a failure to obtain functional literacy and other basic skills is a far graver problem for those young men than it is for high-achieving women. Surely if the sexes were reversed in this scenario, people would be asking why high-achieving men’s needs were being prioritized above women struggling to make it at all—and we’d likely be hearing that sexism was the cause.

In fact, today Title IX, the federal law that was supposed to ensure equal educational opportunity for both sexes, is known almost exclusively as a tool for advancing women’s interests. Title IX has primarily been applied to college athletics. And, of course, it was important to ensure that women had the opportunity to compete in sports at the collegiate level, just like men. But enforcement policies turned the law into a de facto quota system, requiring that the portion of female athletes mirror their share of the student population. Schools have resorted to eliminating male sports teams to try to make the numbers work.

Title IX’s fixation on sports is notable since that’s one of the very few extracurricular activities where male students are more likely to participate than females. Student government, newspapers, academic clubs, theater, and music programs: in all of these endeavors, women tend to participate at higher rates than men. Yet no one contemplates yanking funding from a school that fails to cast as many men as women in their school play or that fails a “proportionality test” in student government or on the campus newspaper masthead.

Unsurprisingly, conservations about expanding Title IX’s reach into academic disciplines revolve solely around cajoling more women into math and science courses.  No one’s talking about how to bring more “balance” to all the humanities programs that are dominated by women, or to the student population more generally.  One would imagine that if men accounted for 60 percent of all undergraduates—as women do today—there would be plenty of media attention and concern about the relative decline of women, and consideration for how to get more women in school.

So by all means, let’s consider how to help more women thrive in calculus and STEM majors. But our goal should really be to help all students—regardless of gender—fulfill their potential. And that means we need to spare a little concern for boys and young men too.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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