There’s a pervasive folk belief that girls are less biologically equipped than boys at math — and this may explain the gender gap in STEM fields. A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University puts such myths to rest, showing no gender difference in brain functionality when performing math.
“We see that children’s brains function similarly regardless of their gender so hopefully we can recalibrate expectations of what children can achieve in mathematics,” said Jessica Cantlon, professor of neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University and lead author of the new study.
We’re more similar than we are different
The researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of 104 children, aged 3 to 10, while they watched an educational video covering various early math topics, such as counting and addition. The scans of the boys and girls were compared to evaluate any differences in brain activity. What’s more, the scans were compared to those taken from a group of adults who watched the same videos to examine brain maturity.
Cantlon and colleagues employed a range of statistical methods and comparisons, but none rendered any differences in brain development between boys and girls. According to the researchers, boys and girls were equally engaged with the educational material and exhibited the same brain functions when processing math skills. Lastly, the children’s brain maturity was statistically equivalent to either men or women in the adult group.
“It’s not just that boys and girls are using the math network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain,” said Alyssa Kersey, postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago and first author on the paper. “This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different.”
Besides brain activity, the researchers also examined potential gender differences in mathematical abilities, as measured by standardized tests for 3- to 8-year-old children in a study involving 97 participants. The results showed that math ability was equivalent among boys and girls.
Cantlon says that as children grow up, gender differences in science and math abilities can surface due to the way boys and girls are socialized. She mentions studies showing that most American families encourage young boys to play games that involve spatial cognition. Parents also generally have different expectations from their children in terms of math abilities.
“We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren’t the ones causing the gender inequities,” Cantlon said.
In the future, the researchers would like to extend their study using a broader array of math skills, such as spatial processing and memory. They would also like to follow children over many years, preferably into adulthood to see how their math abilities and brain functions differ by gender.