There is no gender difference in brain function or math ability, study

Brains of girls and boys are similar, producing equal math ability.


A few researchers and public figures have hypothesized that women and men differ in their pursuit of professions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) owing to biological contrasts in mathematics aptitude. Nonetheless, little evidence supports such claims.

A new study sheds light on this fact suggesting that there is no such gender inequality in brain function or math ability.

For the study, scientists examined the brain development of young boys and girls. They conducted the first neuroimaging study to evaluate biological gender differences in math aptitude of young children.

Almost 104 young children (3- to 10-years-old; 55 girls) were involved in the study. Scientists used functional MRI techniques to measure their brain activity while watching an educational video covering new math topics, like counting and addition. They then compared the brain scans from the boys and girls to evaluate brain similarity.

After numerous statistical comparisons, scientists found no difference in the brain development of girls and boys. They did not see any difference in how boys and girls processed math skills and were equally engaged while watching educational videos. Finally, boy’s and girls’ brain maturity were statistically equivalent when compared with either men or women in the adult group.

Alyssa Kersey, a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, and first author on the paper, said, “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. This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different.”

Scientists also compared the outcomes of the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, a standardized test for 3-to 8-year-old youngsters, from 97 participants (50 young ladies) to gauge the rate of math development. They found that math ability was equal among the children and didn’t show a difference in gender or age. Nor did the team see a gender difference between maths ability and brain maturity.

Jessica Cantlon at Carnegie Mellon University said, “I think society and culture likely are steering girls and young women away from math and STEM fields. Previous studies show that families spend more time with young boys in play that involves spatial cognition. Many teachers also preferentially spend more time with boys during math class, predicting later math achievement. Finally, children often pick up on cues from their parent’s expectations for math abilities.”

“Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math. We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren’t the ones causing the gender inequities.”

The results of this research are available online in the November 8 issue of the journal Science of Learning.


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.