Scientists discredit earlier hypothesis that boys better at math than girls

A study finds that there is no difference in math aptitude between girls and boys as both the gender learn and perform math skills in a similar way.

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There is an underlying assumption that women do not thrive in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields because of biological deficiencies in math aptitude, but a study now finds there is no gender difference in brain function or math ability.

The myth that women are bad in math aptitude stemmed from a Teen Talk Barbie released in 1992 with the controversial voice fragment, "Math class is hard", with the toy's release meeting with public backlash.

Lead author Jessica Cantlon from the Carnegie Mellon University comprehensively examined the brain development of young boys and girls to find that children's brains functioned similarly regardless of their gender.

"Science does not align with folk beliefs," said Cantlon, the Ronald J. and Mary Ann Zdrojkowski Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in the findings published in journal Science of Learning.

"We can recalibrate expectations of what children can achieve in mathematics as their brain function similarly regardless of gender," she stressed in the findings of the study based on the evaluation of biological gender differences in math aptitude of young children.

The study used functional MRI to measure brain activity in 104 young children between the age of three and 10 years during an educational video covering early math topics such as counting and addition.

The researchers compared scans from the boys and girls to evaluate brain similarity and also examined brain maturity by comparing their scans to those taken from a group of adults (63 adults; 25 women) who watched the same math videos.

Cantlon's team after numerous statistical comparisons found no difference in the brain development of girls and boys in addition to no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills.

Researcher Alyssa Kersey, a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago and first author of the paper, said boys' and girls' brain maturity were statistically equivalent when compared to either men or women in the adult group.

The researchers also compared the results of the Test of Early Mathematics Ability from 97 participants (50 girls) to gauge the rate of math development to find that math ability was equivalent among the children and did not show a difference in gender or with age.

According to Cantlon, society and culture likely are steering girls and young women away from math and STEM fields and typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math.

STEM Subjects

In another study published in the journal Nature Communications in September 2018 explored patterns in academic grades of 1.6 million students, showing that girls and boys perform very similarly in STEM - including at the top of the class. The study, led by UNSW Sydney PhD student Rose O'Dea, negated the view that there are fewer women in STEM-related jobs because they aren't as capable in those subjects as men.

In their meta-analysis, the UNSW researchers compared gender differences in variation of academic grades from over 1.6 million students aged six through to university from all over the world, across 268 different schools and classrooms. "We already knew that girls routinely outperform boys at school, and we also expected female grades to be less variable than those of males, so that wasn't surprising. In fact, our study suggests that these two factors haven't changed in 80 years," O'Dea says.

"However, what was most surprising was that both of these gender differences were far larger in non-STEM subjects, like English. In STEM subjects girls and boys received surprisingly similar grades, in both average and variability." In other words, the researchers demonstrated that academic STEM achievements of boys and girls are very similar.