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The Difference Between Girls and Boys

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When I was in seventh grade, I was the only girl on the junior high math team. I wasn't the best, and I wasn't the worst. But the experience of standing out in such an obvious way -- the loneliness, the geekiness, the sitting alone on the bus, all of it combined -- left the math team, after just a few meets, all boys.

So it was with some concern that, many years later, I stood behind the one-way glass looking into my son's kindergarten class and watched as the girls and boys neatly divided themselves for free play: boys with blocks and computers; girls with paint and clay and art supplies.

My daughter went to an all-girls high school, and while she's majoring in English in college, she (unlike me) did take calculus in high school.

My son attends a coed high school, where, 12 years after that kindergarten class, he is taking advanced calculus in a class with exactly one girl in it -- a transfer from my daughter's all-girls school.

I don't know whether it's nature or nurture, and frankly, I'm not sure it matters. Sloppy talk about genetics -- and that's what most of it is -- doesn't help anyone. It ignores the fact that there are many girls (even if not an equal number) who are just as drawn to math as boys, and it discourages the ones who are from pursuing it, from doing and being their best.

Even now, decades later, I remember some of the boys explaining to me that the reason I was the only girl on the math team was because girls' brains just weren't as good at math and science as theirs. The idea that people keep saying those things is, to me, pretty horrifying. My brain was fine for math. My environment stank.

We can't change nature, but we can change nurture. If there's anything I've learned in the past decades, it's that leaving everything alone -- letting the kids choose their free play, as it were -- changes nothing.

No one actively discouraged the girls in my son's school from taking math. I know these mothers and fathers. They understand, as do I, that while we want to encourage our kids to find their passions and pursue work they love, there are more opportunities in engineering than in studio art, more jobs to be had down the road with technical knowledge than with musical talent.

I love the John Adams quote about how he studied war so his children could study law and medicine so that their children could study art and music. I'm in the middle there, making my living as a lawyer, and I'm proud that my daughter is a published novelist and loves English. But I know that the road ahead is easier for engineers than it is for novelists. Not encouraging girls to get to the top in math and science means not encouraging them to pursue careers whose doors remain wide open even in this recession.

The question is: How?

I'm still a firm believer in the value of an all-girls education. In high school, instead of advanced math or science, I focused on becoming a rather skilled baton twirler, which impressed my daughter when she was about 5, but has never come in handy otherwise in the past few decades. What "saved" me from pursuing a career on a college cheer squad (nothing against cheer squads) was a scholarship from Wellesley College, the only women's college I applied to, which didn't have cheer squads. Financial need left me no choice but to accept their generous offer, and while I was miserable at the time, it changed my life.

Of course, all-girls schools and women's colleges are not for everyone. Even so, my own anecdotal experience and the research I've seen suggest they continue to have a vital role to play. And as more and more big public high schools are split up into smaller "academies," girls academies should play a vital role. So should experiments with all-girls classes and girls teams -- the math and science version of girls athletics.

Doing nothing won't do. Even I can tell that the numbers don't add up.

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