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See Inside His Brain, Her Brain

Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement [Preview]

Why do men dominate the fields of science, engineering and mathematics?

Ladies' Choice

Of course, even if you're smart, you might not want to be a scientist. Studies of mathematically gifted youth are of special interest to understanding the psychology of career choice because, within this sample, there is little doubt that each boy and girl has the capacity to excel in science. What leads one little Einstein to choose electrical engineering and the other law? A 10-year study of 320 profoundly gifted individuals (top one in 10,000) found that those whose mathematical skills were stronger than their verbal ones (even though they had very high verbal ability) said math and science courses were their favorites and were very likely to pursue degrees in those areas. On the other hand, those kids whose verbal skills were even higher than their math skills said humanities courses were their favorites and most often pursued educational credentials in the humanities and law.

It appears then that highly gifted kids ask themselves, “What am I better at?” rather than “Am I smart enough to succeed in a particular career?” This finding provides some insight into sex differences. Among precocious children, boys more frequently exhibit a “tilt” favoring mathematical and related abilities compared with verbal aptitude. Encouraging more balanced gifted students to keep science and technology fields open as options may help top off the pipeline with more high-achieving female and male students.

It is true that multiple psychological and social factors play a part in determining career direction. People's individual expectations for success are shaped by their perception of their own skills. One factor in forming our self-perception is how authority figures such as teachers and parents perceive and respond to us. A 1992 study by psychology professors Lee Jussim of Rutgers University and Jacquelynne Eccles of the University of Michigan found that the level at which teachers rated a student's mathematical talent early in the school year predicted later test scores—even when objective measures of ability were at odds with the teacher's perception. This study and others suggest that stereotypes of science as masculine may prejudice educators against girls from the start.

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