February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

Why Gender Matters

Your daughter hates math? Son tunes out in French? They may “need a different kind of school” says psychologist Leonard Sax. In a new book he explains that, while boys and girls have equal capacities to learn, the way they are taught makes a dramatic difference.

DO BOYS AND GIRLS REALLY LEARN DIFFERENTLY? Girls hear better than boys. A boy’s failure to pay attention may be interpreted as ADD, when it’s merely a result of the teacher not speaking loudly enough. I can’t tell you the number of times a father has told me, “My daughter says I yell at her. I’ve never yelled at her.” [To her] he’s yelling, but he doesn’t realize it.

BUT SHOULDN’T WE TREAT EVERYONE EQUALLY? Neglecting these hardwired differences leads, ironically, to a reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Saying “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” works great for girls. You have to use a different strategy for disciplining boys.

IS SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION THE ANSWER?

Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Rosa Parks, Sally Ride—every one went to an all-girls high school. And women who attend women’s colleges are five times more likely to earn a doctorate in math, physics and computer science.

WHY DO BOYS SEEM TO DO BETTER IN MATH AND GIRLS IN ENGLISH? Regions of the brain develop in a different sequence. The brain of a 12-year-old boy looks like that of an 8-year-old girl with respect to language. But in the areas involved in math, the brain of the 12-year-old girl looks like that of the 8-year-old boy.

SO WAS HARVARD PRESIDENT LAWRENCE SUMMER’S SUGGESTION ABOUT GIRLS AND SCIENCE OFF BASE?

Dr. Summers has a Ph.D. in economics—he isn’t knowledgeable about brain science. There aren’t any innate differences in the ability of boys and girls to learn math and physics.

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