Equal minds: Study finds no gender differences in child brain development, math skills

PITTSBURGH — For decades, the myth that women are at a disadvantage to their male counterparts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) due to biological deficiencies in mathematical ability has been taken as fact. Now, a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University finds that boys’ and girls’ brains are extremely similar. So similar, in fact, that the assumed disparity between the mathematical abilities of boys and girls doesn’t exist.

Researchers tracked and analyzed the brain development of young girls and boys, and found essentially no difference in brain function or math ability between genders.

“Science doesn’t align with folk beliefs,” says senior author Jessica Cantlon, a professor of developmental neuroscience at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a statement. “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.”

This is the first study ever to utilize neuro-imaging to evaluate gender differences in mathematical abilities.

The research team used functional MRIs to analyze brain activity in 104 (55 girls, 49 boys) children, aged three to 10 years old, as they watched an educational video on elementary math topics. The brain scans of the boys were then compared to the girls’ brain scans, in order to identify any differences in how their brains were processing the new mathematical information. Brain maturity was also examined by comparing the children’s scans to those of 63 adults who had watched the same videos.

After multiple statistical comparisons, the researchers found no difference in brain development between boys and girls. Furthermore, there was no difference in how the boys and girls were processing the math information, and both genders were equally engaged in the educational video. Finally, the maturity levels of the boys’ and girls’ brains were statistically equal when compared to men and women in the adult experimental 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,” comments first author Alyssa Kersey. “This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different.”

In addition to the brain scans, the researchers compared scores between boys and girls on the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, a common standardized test for children between three and eight years of age. Again, there were no appreciable differences in girls’ and boys’ math abilities.

Cantlon and her team believe that girls and young women are being systematically steered away from careers in STEM fields, and this alarming indoctrination usually begins from a very young age. Previous research has shown that young boys are encouraged far more often to engage in activities that encourage critical thinking, and many teachers expect better grades and increased attention from boys during mathematical classes.

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

The study is published in the journal Science of Learning.