The Iceland Exception: A Land Where Girls Rule in Math

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But the story of female achievement in Iceland doesn't necessarily have a happy ending. Educators have found that when girls leave their rural enclaves to attend universities in the nation's cities, their science advantage generally shrinks. While 61% of university students are women, they make up only one-third of Iceland's science students. By the time they enter the labor market, many are overtaken by men, who become doctors, engineers and computer technicians. Educators say they watch many bright girls suddenly recoil in the face of real, head-to-head competition with boys. In a math class at a Reykjavík school, Asgeir Gurdmundsson, 17, says that although girls were consistently brighter than boys at school, "they just seem to leave the technical jobs to us." Says Solrun Gensdottir, the director of education at the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture: "We have to find a way to stop girls from dropping out of sciences."

Teachers across the country have begun to experiment with ways to raise boys to the level of girls in elementary and secondary education. Last year Sandgerdi's teachers segregated the 10th-grade mathematics classes after deciding that boys needed intensive instruction. "The girls are strong students, so both the teachers and the students liked it," says Kristjansson. But left alone, "some of the boys had such behavior problems that they spoiled it for the lot."

The high school in Kevlavík tried the same experiment in 2002 and '03, separating 16-to-20-year-olds by gender for two years. That time the boys slipped even further behind. "The boys said the girls were better anyway," says Kristjan Asmundsson, who taught the 25 boys. "They didn't even try." --By Vivienne Walt

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