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What influences the decline in girls'
math performance?

It doesn't add up. Girls hold their own with boys in math and science right up through sixth grade. So why do their interest, performance, and confidence in those subjects decline once they hit seventh grade?

The question rivals the Kennedy assassination in the number of theories it's spawned. Accusing fingers have been pointed at cultural norms, school policies, even genetic endowment.

But one answer to the problem lies closer to home. The type of relationship that parents share, says Kimberly A. Updegraff, M.A., provides a telling clue as to what will happen to a girl's grades once she enters junior high.

In egalitarian families--those in which parents divide child-rearing duties with relative equality--girls' math and science grades stay the course, Updegraff and colleagues report in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (Vol. 25, No. 1). It's in more traditional families, rather, that performance takes a dive.

"Egalitarian families provide a protective factor,' says Updegraff, a doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University. For one thing, these families tend to ignore traditional gender roles. So girls are less likely to feel that technical subjects are inappropriate or beyond them.

Another key factor: dads. While moms in both types of families interacted with daughters equally often, fathers in egalitarian marriages spent seven more hours a week with their girls than did traditional dads. That expands the range of interests and activities to which a girl is exposed. Says Updegraff: "Father involvement really matters for girls."