by Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik, Ph.D., and Pamela J. Piskurich, M.S.
Reprinted from C-MITES News, Fall 2011
Parents of 5th and 6th grade gifted girls sometimes express concern to us because they have noticed their middle school daughters are beginning to achieve less in school and/or are less interested in school than they were just a few years before. These parents are not alone in their concerns. Research has shown that, beginning in middle school or junior high school, girls often show decreased self-confidence and career aspirations. They are less likely to pursue interests in high-level math, science and computer programming courses as time goes on.
As early as 3rd grade, gender differences start to emerge. Girls begin shying away from math, science, and computer science. A number of different things become barriers to girls’ participation in these fields: the girls perceive that the material is too difficult, they assume they are not capable in math or science, and their teachers have lower expectations for girls than they do boys. The self-image that girls have doesn’t typically match up well to their image of a “scientist.” They perceive math and science as not being relevant to their futures. In addition, math and science instruction is often boring, and is not compatible with the girls’ values of relationships, connectedness, and doing things that help people.
Several factors contribute to females shying away from careers in math, science, and technology. From a very young age, boys are more likely to be interested in computers. For example, research shows that boys monopolize computers, even in preschool. When boys and girls are paired, girls defer to their partner’s wishes. Parents are more likely to purchase computers for their sons and give more encouragement to their sons in using computers. Most math, science and technology teachers are male. Boys attribute their competence to internal factors, such as ability, while girls attribute successes to external factors, such as luck. At the same time, boys blame problems on external factors, not on their mistakes, while girls attribute problems to their own failures.
To counteract this, parents and teachers need to make a concentrated effort to teach gifted girls to question and speak out. Girls benefit from career counseling, and they need mentors and role models in their lives. Other, slightly older, girls can be important role models. Parents need to be made aware of the special needs of gifted girls.
To make instruction more “female-friendly” in math, science and technology, teachers can use hands-on learning, show how the information at hand connects to other fields and connects to the girls’ everyday lives. Female-oriented problems are also helpful. Some teachers find it useful to have girls generate their own problems. Girls enjoy learning in a collaborative atmosphere with opportunities for discussion. Research also shows that single-sex teaching groups are beneficial. Since girls can get caught up in taking notes (and this reduces the time they have for processing, questioning and integrating the information), providing the notes to them helps them to move to the next level in their studies.
Allowing thinking time and wait time when asking questions in class is also helpful. Girls also benefit when teachers show students that there are multiple ways of approaching problems.
Other suggestions for teachers and parents of academically talented girls include:
- Communicate high expectations.
- Provide frequent feedback and encouragement.
- Avoid subtly sexist language.
- Let girls choose their own partners.
- As a parent, be an active role model for learning and developing in your own career. However, no matter how busy you are, set aside daily time to talk with your daughters.
- Provide help but avoid solving problems for them.
- Ensure equitable access and experience.
- Consider traveling with your daughter (whole family trips, as well as mother/daughter or father/daughter trips). Travel provides adventure, enrichment, family bonding, and a boost in self-confidence.
- Attribute girls’ successes to their ability, not just their hard work.
- Talk about women in science, math and technology and encourage girls to read stories about them.
- Pair girls at computers, sometimes even when the assignment doesn’t require pairs.
- Add manipulatives to the curriculum in the lower grades to help girls’ spatial skills.
- When using a visual of a scientist, show a female scientist.
- Teach healthy competition. Don’t always let girls win. Winning builds confidence, while losing builds character.
- If your daughter doesn’t feel that she fits in socially, help redirect her energy toward positive activities such as drama, debate, sports, science, or music.
- Encourage girls to participate in all-girls activities, such as Girl Scouts.
By empowering girls with technological literacy, we help them to become the problem solvers of tomorrow. With the support of teachers, parents and others we can generate excitement about engineering, math and science and inspire girls to pursue these career fields.
Websites for Girls
www.braincake.org. This website is targeted at girls who are interested in math and science. According to the website, “We’re here to help girls be confident, solve problems, and think independently. We engage girls in current science, helping them understand its relevance to their life today. We create and link girls to programs that educate and prepare them to understand and use science in their everyday lives. And, we embrace girls as architects of change - envisioning, planning, organizing, shaping, and building a better world - with math and science as their tools.”
www.girlstart.com Features science experiments that girls can do at home and online lessons in areas such as bridge-building, insects, women’s history, investing money, and how to create a website (from Web Diva to Webmaster!)
Books for Girls, Parents, and Teachers:
1. Rimm, S. (2003). See Jane Win for Girls. Minneapolis: Free Spirit. This is a workbook for middle school girls, which serves as a guide to self-awareness.
2. Karnes, F. A., & Stephens, K. R. (2002). Young Women of Achievement: A Resource for Girls in Science, Math and Technology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Written for young teens and useful as a reference for teachers.
3. Kerr, B. A. (1997). Smart Girls (Revised edition). Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press. Includes research and suggestions for educating gifted girls.
4. Hartley-Brewer, E. (2001). Raising Confident Girls. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. Includes tips for parenting adolescent girls.
5. Odean, K. (2002). Great Books for Girls. New York: Ballantine Books. Special thanks to Dr. Mary Ann Swiatek for her contributions to this article.