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Updated 10:00 AM April 11, 2005
 

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  Research
Why women shy away from careers in science and math

Girls steer away from careers in math, science and engineering because they view science as a solitary rather than a social occupation, according to a U-M psychologist.

"Raising girls who are confident in their ability to succeed in science and math is our first job," said Jacquelynne Eccles, a senior research professor at the Institute for Social Research and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

"But in order to increase the number of women in science, we also need to make young women more interested in these fields, and that means making them aware that science is a social endeavor that involves working with and helping people."

Eccles gave an address on how parents and teachers influence children's academic and career choices April 9 in Atlanta at the biennial conference of the Society for Research in Child Development.

For the talk, she drew upon data from decades of research. One of the studies Eccles used for the analysis was the Michigan Study of Adolescent and Adult Life Transitions, longitudinal research she started in 1983.

Eccles has found that parents provide many types of messages to daughters that undermine both their confidence in their math and science abilities and their interest in pursuing careers in these fields.

Even though girls got better math grades than boys, parents of daughters reported that math was more difficult for their child than parents of sons. "Parents of daughters also said their girls had to work harder to do well in math than parents of sons, even though teachers told us this was not true," she said.

"Parents also gave very different reasons for the math success of girls and boys," Eccles said. "Parents of boys rated talent and effort as equally important, while parents of girls said hard work was much more important than math talent."

Eccles urged teachers to tell parents that their daughters are talented in math and science, and to provide girls and their parents with vocational and intellectual reasons for studying math or science.

"In addition to improving the confidence of girls, we need to show them that scientists work in teams, solving problems collaboratively. And that as a result of their work, scientists are in a unique position to help other people.

"We as a culture do a very bad job of telling our children what scientists do," she said. "Young people have an image of scientists as eccentric old men with wild hair, smoking cigars, deep in thought, alone. Basically, they think of Einstein. We need to change that image and give our children a much richer, nuanced view of who scientists are, what scientists do and how they work."

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