Girlie science

A study shows the sexes like different science topics. Should that lead to segregated school curricula?

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Comments about men and women’s innate ability to do math and science may have helped topple a Harvard president. Now comes a report out of England that shows the sexes differ in what kind of science they prefer to study. The Independent reported yesterday that a survey of 1,200 British 15-year-olds revealed that boys preferred learning about what biological and chemical weapons do to the human body and how meteors cause disasters while girls wanted to know about the meaning of dreams, treating cancer or physical fitness. Both sexes, however, agreed on what they least wanted to study — modern farming methods and “famous scientists and their lives.”

According to the report from the Center for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Leeds, “the responses of the boys reflect strong interest in destructive technologies and events.” (Other winners were how the atom bomb functions and “brutal, threatening and dangerous animals.”) But boys also showed a more genteel side by being curious about how it feels to be weightless in space and how computers work.

Girls, on the other hand, wanted to learn about their own bodies, such as the effects of alcohol and eating disorders, how to protect oneself from sexually transmitted diseases and the “biological and human aspects of abortion.”

The study aimed to identify ways to make science more popular in response to declining interest in the subject. So now the researchers, who called the “persistence of gender differentials” in what students want to study “disappointing,” are nonetheless calling for curriculum planners to draft separate syllabuses for girls and boys.

One can’t help wondering whether the answers really reflect students’ interests or whether they felt social pressure to answer a certain way. I can just imagine a bunch of 15-year-old boys guffawing Beavis-and-Butt-Head style (albeit with a British accent) about how cool it would be to learn about blowing stuff up. And any girl who admitted she was really curious about what lightning does to the human body might be labeled as freaky.

Men and women — hell, everyone — differ in their interests. But should we overhaul curricula — and risk giving one side an inferior education — just to pander to them? In high school, I for one would rather have taken classes that allowed me to write angst-ridden poetry or discuss pop psychology. But I’m glad someone made me go to chemistry, where strangely enough, I did enjoy blowing things up. And no girl should be denied that opportunity.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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