New research finds that young girls and boys have ‘indistinguishable’ math abilities
Previous data based primarily on test scores have shown that boys and girls are equally good at math, despite common misconceptions. But now, researchers also have brain imaging that proves young boys and girls both use the same brain mechanisms to solve math problems no matter their sex.
The study, published today in the journal Science of Learning, followed 104 children from ages 3 to 10 and found similar patterns of brain activity in boys and girls as they engaged in basic math tasks.
“We’d studied the behavior of young girls and boys on mathematics tests, and we’d observed that their performance was statistically equivalent; they were indistinguishable. They’d developed the same abilities at the same rates in early childhood,” says Jessica Cantlon, a professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University and the study’s senior author. “But there was this lingering question of what’s going on under the hood? Is it the same neural mechanism that allows them to accomplish this equivalent behavior?”
These results are huge when it comes to challenging the idea that more boys than girls end up in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) because they are just more inclined to handle math better. When in reality, that misconception is just one more thing to set back young girls and women.
Cantlon and her team got the participating children to perform cognitive tests and watch videos of engaging math lessons while inside an MRI scanner. This marks the first study to use neuroimaging to evaluate biological gender differences in the math abilities in children.
“We looked at which areas of the brain respond more strongly to mathematics content in the videos and tasks, compared to non-math content like reading or the alphabet. So you can define the math network that way by looking at regions that respond more strongly,” Cantlon says. “When we do that in little girls, we see a particular network of the brain respond, and when we do that same analysis in boys we see the exact same regions.” She says the networks in both boys and girls are identical.
Cantlon feels that the way we socialize our children leads girls and women to shy away from math and STEM fields. Past studies have shown that families spend more time with young boys in play that involves spatial cognition, while teachers also preferentially spend more time with boys during math class, she said. Also, 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,” Cantlon said. “We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren’t the ones causing the gender inequities.”