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Parents Tend to Doubt
Girls' Math, Science Ability

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Parents tend to believe that science is less compelling and more challenging for daughters than for sons, and even appear to use different language when discussing science with girls than with boys, according to new research.

These differences existed despite the fact that the girls and boys included in the study said they were equally interested in science and confident about their abilities, and both genders earned the same grades in the subject.

"It's not that the kids are different, the treatments are different," study author Dr. Harriet R. Tenenbaum of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Reuters Health.

This unconscious tendency to think of daughters and sons differently in the realm of science may partly explain why fewer women than men work in professions that involve science and math, Tenenbaum and colleague Dr. Campell Leaper speculate.

But making parents conscious of their differential treatment could help close that gap, Tenenbaum said.

"The majority of parents want their children to be competent," she said. "I think that once parents become aware of their behaviors, they will act differently."

Leaper and Tenenbaum asked 52 boys and girls around 11 and 13 years old to indicate how much they enjoyed science and how well they understood the subject at school. The researchers asked their parents to answer the same questions about their sons and daughters.

The families were largely middle-class and white.

The researchers discovered that parents were more likely to believe their daughters were uninterested and overly challenged by science than sons. They also found that fathers were more likely to use challenging or scientific language during science activities with their sons than with their daughters.

The findings are published in the January issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

During the study, the researchers observed parents interact with their children during a variety of activities, some scientific and some not.

For instance, parents talked to their children while performing an experiment in which they dropped seltzer tablets and raisins into a glass of water. When seltzer bubbles accumulated in the raisin crevices, the raisin would float to the surface, at which point the bubbles would pop and the raisin would sink.

In another instance, children and parents discussed interpersonal dilemmas, such as a situation in which a teacher asks a student to help a classmate with her homework, but the two girls don't get along.

Tenenbaum explained that, during scientific activities, fathers were more likely to use challenging or scientific language such as "carbon dioxide" or "surface tension" with their sons than with their daughters. On the other hand, they were more likely to ask daughters challenging questions about interpersonal dilemmas--such as "why?"

These differences suggest that as sons grow up, they are given more opportunities to think about science and become comfortable doing so, according to Tenenbaum.

"In contrast, girls are given opportunities to develop interpersonal skills," she said.

"I believe both Dr. Tenenbaum and I would argue that parents' gender attitudes are partly informed from their own upbringing and preferences, as well as their observations of the world around them," Leaper said.

"Throughout society, we see mostly men represented in fields of science," Leaper added. "Indeed, studies indicate that children tend to view science and math as 'for boys."'

SOURCE: Developmental Psychology 2003;39:34-47.


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