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Closing the gender gap in math and science

Gerry Richmond remembers the time in ninth grade when she and her classmates were excited about getting the results of a career-planning examination. As always, Ms. Richmond ''aced the math part'' of the test.

When she went to discuss the results with a counselor, however, the counselor became excited and said the test showed she would make an outstanding secretary.

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Ms. Richmond promptly enrolled in bookkeeping and typing classes. If it were not for a male teacher who recognized and encouraged her aptitude for math, she believes she may have ended up with a dissatisfying job instead of the one she now holds, assistant professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Penn.

''Women are not being as readily accepted in the sciences as they should be, '' Ms. Richmond says. ''There has been progress, but I know of male scientists who, when they see a scholarly paper by a woman, immediately brand it an inferior product.''

Ms. Richmond's experience may hint why boys' and girls' achievement levels vary so greatly between the freshmen and senior years of high school. While achievement levels in math are comparable in early high school, by 12th grade, males have surpassed females in both the number of math courses taken and their success rate.

The widening of the so-called ''gender gap'' in science and math instruction is most often blamed on environmental factors: the real or imagined perception that parents, peers, and teachers expect girls to concentrate on things other than science and math; a failure of teachers to make clear the practical uses of science; and the absence of role models.

The concentration of women in jobs most likely to be lost to automation or obsolescence concerns feminists, educators, and others. These groups also fear that a lack of training in science and math will keep women out of new jobs.

At the same time, many believe that if the engineering shortage is to be overcome, women must be tapped, as they are the largest pool of potential workers.

''Given that the majority of workers - 60 percent - are women and minority males, it is clear that any substantial increase in high-technology workers will emerge from the very groups that have historically been underrepresented in math and science fields,'' said Holly Knox, director of the Project on Equal Education Rights, in congressional testimony earlier this year.