Monday, April 18, 2011

The Battle for Science Literacy Begins in the Womb

In my last post, I said I was going to start blogging about science literacy for women at the bassinet level. Already I have made a mistake. We need to start in the womb. There are differences in male and female fetuses that may play a role in the way boys and girls learn science and math. Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens in their book, Boys and Girls Learn Differently! A Guide for Teachers and Parents, published lists of fundamental differences at various stages in development that affect learning, including development in utero.
Anterior cingulate cortex.Image via Wikipedia

Some of the findings support old wives tales that any mom or midwife will tell you. For example, male fetuses are generally more active than female fetuses. How often have you heard a mother-to-be react to a hearty kick with the comment, "I know this one is a boy."

The male fetus produces testosterone and the female fetus produces estrogen. So the hormonal system is already setting up boys to be more assertive, even before they're born. In addition, the female fetus produces more serotonin, than the male. Serotonin, is a hormone that calms you down, and many people take serotonin substitutes to aid sleep, especially women after menopause.

In the male brain, the basal ganglia or reptilian complex is emphasized, which is responsible for aggressive behavior, territoriality and dominance, while in the female brain, it is the cingulate gyrus or limbic part, which is responsible for emotion, motivation and nurturing behavior.

Although the fetus starts out as undifferentiated and basically female, changes instigated by hormone bursts significantly alter males and females before birth. Thus the template for our contrasting performance in learning about science is being built in the womb.

This must seem frustrating to parents. Even in a safe, protected place where social influences can't get at her, your daughter's brain is being wired to make it harder for her to learn science and math.

For that initial nine months of waiting, is there anything parents can do to begin leveling the playing field for daughters? There is. This is the time to begin a dialog about gender neutral parenting. It is important for mothers and fathers to reach a consensus on how they as a team will approach this issue. It is a time to learn through reading and research and conversations with professionals how boys and girls absorb and process information. 

Human fetusImage via Wikipedia
This also is a very good time to observe the behaviors of family members and friends. At the baby showers and in the conversations about religious observations such as christenings, parents will quickly see which grandparent, aunt or neighbor is gone to pose a challenge with regard to stereotyping your daughter. It is never too early to start making known your intentions for creating a neutral environment for your female child when it comes to her education, her experience of the natural world and her career aspirations.
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