• Science

The Iceland Exception: A Land Where Girls Rule in Math

4 minute read
Vivienne Walt

This fishing village of 1,480 people is a bleak and lonely place, even in a country suspended at the top of the world. Set on the southwestern edge of Iceland, the volcanic landscape is whipped by the North Atlantic winds, which hush everything around them. A sculpture at the entrance to the village depicts a naked man facing a wall of seawater twice his height. There is no movie theater, and many residents never venture to the capital, a 50-min. drive away.

But Sandgerdi might be the perfect place to raise girls who have mathematical talent. Government researchers two years ago tested almost every 15-year-old in Iceland for it and found that boys trailed far behind girls. That fact was unique among the 41 countries that participated in the standardized test for that age group designed by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. But while Iceland’s girls were alone in the world in their significant lead in math, their national advantage of 15 points was small compared with the one they had over boys in fishing villages like Sandgerdi, where it was closer to 30.

The teachers of Sandgerdi’s 254 students were only mildly surprised by the results. They say the gender gap is a story not of talent but motivation. Boys think of school as purgatory on the way to a future of finding riches at sea; for girls, it’s their ticket out of town. Margret Ingporsdottir and Hanna Maria Heidarsdottir, both 15, students at Sandgerdi’s gleaming school–which has a science laboratory, a computer room and a well-stocked library–have no doubt that they are headed for university. “I think I will be a pharmacist,” says Heidarsdottir. The teens sat in principal Gudjon Kristjansson’s office last week, waiting for a ride to the nearby town of Kevlavík, where they were competing in West Iceland’s yearly math contest, one of many throughout Iceland in which girls excel.

Meanwhile, by the harbor, Gisli Tor Hauksson, 14, already has big plans that don’t require spending his afternoons toiling over geometry. “I’ll be a fisherman,” he says, just like most of his ancestors. His father recently returned home from 60 days at sea off the coast of Norway. “He came back with 1.1 million krona,” about $18,000, says Hauksson. As for school, he says, “it destroys the brain.” He intends to quit at 16, the earliest age at which he can do so legally. “A boy sees his older brother who has been at sea for only two years and has a better car and a bigger house than the headmaster,” says Kristjansson.

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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