Monday, March 20, 2006

Math Monday: Sally Ride Talks Education

Interesting USA Today interview with Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel into space and now chair of the Deloitte & Touche Council on the Advancement of Women. She also runs Sally Ride Science, which aims to keep girls interested in math and science as they move from elementary to middle school. Here are some key exchanges:
Q: Boys earn 70% of the D's and F's in school and account for 80% of dropouts. Shouldn't we fear more for their future?

A: It's a big problem. Women earn the majority of undergraduate degrees in the U.S. and last year earned more Ph.D.s than men. But keeping girls in the science and math pipeline is a separate problem with different causes. It's important we address both. You don't stop research on breast cancer just because heart disease is also deadly. You work on both.

Q: Let's talk Lawrence Summers. The Harvard president recently resigned after giving a controversial speech a year ago suggesting that men might simply be predisposed to be better at math and science. Is there at least a grain of truth in what he said?

A: (Laughs). Suppose you came across a woman lying on the street with an elephant sitting on her chest. You notice she is short of breath. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of heart problems. In her case, the much more likely cause is the elephant on her chest. For a long time, society put obstacles in the way of women who wanted to enter the sciences. That is the elephant. Until the playing field has been leveled and lingering stereotypes are gone, you can't even ask the question.

Q: I will anyway. There are many obvious biological differences between men and women. This can't be one?

A: There are obvious differences, but until you eliminate the more obvious cause, it's difficult to get at the question scientifically. Look at law, medicine and business. In 1970 — that's not ancient history — law school was 5% female, med school was 8% and business school was 4%. You could have taken a look at those numbers and concluded that women don't make good lawyers or doctors. The statistics might have supported you. But today, all of those fields are about 50-50.

Q: Why hasn't that happened in math, science and engineering?

A: The stereotypes were more ingrained. Their numbers are increasing, and there is no reason to believe that the percentage of women is going to suddenly level off at 11%. Why should it not go up like law school, medical school and business school
"Can't even ask the question?" I thought that scientists were supposed to be more open-minded. Oh well... Read the whole thing and check out her response to the question about girls-only high schools. (Like the one she attended.)
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