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Susan Estrich
10 Feb 2016
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The Difference Between Girls and Boys


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.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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Comment: #1
Posted by: nana02
Wed Sep 15, 2010 5:38 AM
I had a female math teacher in eighth grade who also said girls are not good at math, and discouraged the girls.

So I learned to hate math, and I learned that I couldn't do it. I got through a bachelor's degree without taking it. Then I decided on a career that made it necessary for me to learn math. Quickly.

I discovered I had lots of ability in math--once I had a clear motivation.

Comment: #2
Posted by:
Wed Sep 15, 2010 6:07 AM
I'm not sure about the math thing. BUT in case you didn't know it, I notice a big difference beween boys and girls.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Early
Wed Sep 15, 2010 8:06 AM
Hmm, I generally value Ms. Estrich's columns, but I can't back her up on this one. There were more males than females in my math classes, both as teachers and students, but the disparity was not as great as in her experience. I graduated high school in the 70s, after passing through 3 different public school systems in the midwest, and in all of them I received a lot of support for my interest in math, with especially positive mentoring from my junior high and high school teachers, who were mostly male. Math club in middle school was led by a female teacher, and had almost as many girls as boys.
This was all before the days of magnet schools - i was assigned to these schools based merely on my home address, yet just by random chance encountered good math instruction with no discrimination against girls.
I went to a good, but not Ivy League, college, where I was in one math class so advanced (Topology) there were only 4 students. 2 were male, 2 female. In that class, the only freshman was myself, a female. The teacher was also a woman.
By the way, I was also a cheerleader; and one of the other top math geeks of my class was on the squad with me. i never at that time heard a comment that that was surprising in any way.
I now work in the actuarial field, which seems to be fairly even divided between the sexes.
So, although the disparities Ms. Estrich talks about do exist, they are not so widespread as feared.
I also want to comment on her remark that "the road ahead is easier for engineers than it is for novelists". That is true in terms of number of jobs available and how much those jobs pay, but there are other respects in which engineering and other technically-oriented fields are less easy than jobs in the arts: the investment in time and money to qualify for those jobs, and the day-to-day demands of the in terms of longer, less flexible hours, travel, etc. Some women choose careers in the arts because less demanding schedules better fit their lifestyles, which often include child-rearing. True, the fact that child-rearing is more often the province of the woman than the man is due to another kind of sexism at work, but it's not due to someone saying a woman's brain can't handle technical knowledge.
Comment: #4
Posted by: cassandr
Wed Sep 15, 2010 8:29 AM
I went to a co-ed public school, but that has nothing to do with it. I was a somewhat lazy b+ student (in the accerlerated curriculum), most of the time, although my IQ is 148-152 depending on what test you believe. I was used to accomplishing pretty much whatever I set out to do. Accounting was so easy, I got straight 'A's, thinking this is how it is supposed to be, so obvious why does anyone even have to study this. My job now involves hex math, ALC programming.
So what happened when I took Calculus? It never made any sense to me, I just couldn't see it. Maybe it was too abstract. I don't know. I was never used to such colossal failure. This just couldn't be happening to me. But it did. I withdrew after never getting higher than a 32 (OUT OF 100) on any quarterly test. My light bulb just wouldn't come on. Maybe women like me just can't stand to fail. Environment had nothing to do with it. This was the only bad grade of my entire life.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Gayle Ramsay
Wed Sep 15, 2010 10:34 AM
I'm astonished by Ms. Estrich's implied assertion that young women are not being nurtured in our schools. My observations have been just the reverse. Extraordinary efforts seem to be being made to help young women, while across the nation young men are increasingly having difficulties in large part due to a feeling that they are unwanted. Is there a single college that doesn't have both a Women's Center and a Women's Study Department? Is there a single Men's Center or Men's Study Department on any campus in the entire nation?
Ms Estrich makes the interesting statement: I don't know whether it's nature or nurture, and frankly, I'm not sure it matters." Of course it matters! Our children are who the are. If we decide it is "politically correct" that they be something other than who they are, they will suffer. Just ask gay folk how they feel about being socially engineered into being straight.
Boys and girls, on average, are fundamentally different. To attempt to socially engineer this difference away is profoundly destructive. Very simply, let them be who they are, let them follow their own dreams. Treat each individual, male or female, as an individual. Stop this vile trendy leftist focus on male versus female; discover who the individual student is.
This is not to disparage women (or men). Forcing math on a child not ready, for whatever reason, for math is only to turn that child against math forever. I thoroughly agree with Ms. Estrich supporting all female (and presumably all male) academies. There is strong empirical evidence that women coming from women's colleges are substantially more financially successful than women coming from co-ed colleges. This is not a case of "separate but equal" but of "separate thus superior." Unfortunately it goes against all liberal "wisdom" of the past 50 years. Absolute proof, perhaps, that it is true wisdom.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Tidford Tatt
Wed Sep 15, 2010 2:48 PM
The reason most athletics are split into "boys" and "girls" is that, at the top level, men are simply more physically gifted in certain areas than women, its biology. Yes, there are plenty of women stronger and faster than myself, but that's why I don't play sports, cause I can't compete at any level. I remember a commercial back during the olympics some time ago that had Jackie Joyner Kersey (I think) talking about how she was faster than all but 120-some men on the planet. That makes her faster than 3 billion men, but not fast enough to even contend for a medal.

Anyway, I'm not trying to bash women here, what I'm saying is that women and men are separated in athletics due to real, physical differences. To suggest that men and women be separated in academics would also imply that there are real, physical differences that would necessitate this. Ms. Estrich's point was that there isn't a difference physically (men and women being equally capable at math), and that the difference is social norms and pressures. If this is the case, you solve nothing by simply removing girls from the boys.

I also hear talk similar to Gayle Ramsay, that women don't take failure as well, or that when they fail, the pressure is higher on them since they feel they have to prove that, as a woman, they are just as capable. This may be true that women need to "prove more", but this talk belittles the role men's feelings play into their actions. You think any man likes to fail? You think that other men won't ridicule one man for his failures? I still remember the whole class laughing at me in the third grade because I couldn't spell the name of our city (go ahead, spell Albuquerque without looking at it, its not easy, especially when people pronounce it Albukurkey). Anyway, that didn't stop me from taking honors english in high school, along with honors math, but then I guess I'm a man so that doesn't mean anything.

Re; cassandr: "True, the fact that child-rearing is more often the province of the woman than the man is due to another kind of sexism at work, but it's not due to someone saying a woman's brain can't handle technical knowledge."

If I had to give a job to two equally qualified people, and one of them told me that they would need to take 2-3 months off every 1-2 years, I would hire the other person. If I had to promote one of two equally skilled people, I'd promote the one that was at work more often (and thus, put in more perceived effort). To say that anyone can take off time from work and be just as deserving or capable as their co-workers who don't is naive and foolish. And yes, this applies to people in the national guard just as much to people wanting to start a family, this isn't me being sexist in any way. Having children is a personal choice, remember that.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Nathan H.
Wed Sep 15, 2010 3:16 PM
This is insane, we cannot afford as a nation to waste such a reserve of intelligence. Girls are far superior in math and science. This continues until courting, marriage and motherhood occurs. We must find a way to keep them in essential fields. In our high schools it is very rare to see a boy at the head of the class. It has taken me nearly eight decades to fully realize what should have been obvious from academic records. Females have higher intelligence quotients that males - cope with disaster better and take thoughtful action when confronted with crisis situations far better than males.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Paul
Thu Sep 16, 2010 9:22 AM
I too believe that Ms Estrich's view is a bit myopic. I have 3 daughters, and all of them took AP Calculus, and were in fairly balanced classes. 2 of my daughters also took multiple technical AP classes (CompSci, Chemistry). I think the problem is the culture. More and more engineering slots in universities are taken up either by foreign students, or 1st/2nd generation Americans. These students come from cultures where families push their children harder to get degrees in areas that are in high demand. Engineering undergrad degrees are among the most demanding that universities have to offer. I think American culture no longer pushes children to see past the challenge to the reward (more demand for a degree means more opportunity).
Comment: #9
Posted by: Drew
Thu Sep 16, 2010 10:15 AM
It amazes me how people, particularly in the US, just have to be a victim to make their lives have meaning. Women have it better than men in countless ways but one would never know listening to women bitch. For example, more women than men go to college now but one would never know listen to women whine.

I have always said that one can evaluate the value (good or bad) of a life style/activity by imaging everyone in the US engaging in such life style/activity.

For example, suppose person-1 has a policy (life style) where person-1 performs at least two good deeds for any one good deed another does for person-1. Additionally, one never passed on a bad deed (which is easy to do without thinking about it). Could you image how those good deeds would multiply and how great a place we would live? Thus, I conclude such is a very good policy.

Now image a policy where person-1 never helped another unless person-1 had something to gain. Could you image a world where everyone acted this way? I am not sure I want to live in such a place, thus, I conclude such a policy is bad.

Now, back to women and whining. Women are so worried that men might have it better some where on some issue they even go around with stop watches timing how quickly men can get in and out of a rest room compared to women. Then when they believe they have determined that men can use the rest room 10 seconds faster on average, such means women are being abused, abused I tell you, and demand more rest room facilities to right the wrong.

Can you image a world where everyone was so petty that people went around looking for any possible injustice to bitch about like women do? What a piece of shit world it would be.

If the world were perfect for women, they would still whine pointing to how men have obstacles to overcome making men's life better while everything was perfect for poor women. This “Woe is me” attitude has been old for some time now.

Hint women, everything is not perfect for men (as a group) in this world either but one does not hear men consistently bitching about every little issue men can find.
Comment: #10
Posted by: SusansMirror
Sun Sep 19, 2010 5:49 AM
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