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Brains of Girls and Boys are Similar when Doing Math

Some believe that men and women differ in their pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) because of biological differences in mathematical abilities, and there are some studies to support it. Some studies of children and adults show gender differences in mathematics performance, but we are not sure whether they are really biological differences or results of sociocultural influences.

To study math and gender in early childhood, scientists from University Rochester and Carnegie Mellon University tested for gender differences in the neural processes of mathematics in young children.

The research team used functional MRI to measure the brain activity in 104 children ages 3 to 10 while they watched educational videos covering early math topics. After conducting a number of statistical analyses, the researchers found no difference in the brain activities of girls and boys when they processed mathematical information. Neural activities in areas associated with numerical cognition were nearly identical across genders. Girls and boys are equally engaged when watching the mathematical videos, and they go through the same neural development when learning mathematical concepts.

The findings suggest that children’s neural activities when processing mathematics are in fact one heterogenous group rather than two distinct gender groups. The difference between a boy and a girl is just as large as the different between two children of the same gender.

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

The researchers also studied the rate of math development in 97 children ages 3 to 8 by comparing their results of the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, a standardized mathematical test for young children. They found that math ability was the same among the children and did not show a difference in gender.

Cantlon said to ScienceDaily that she thinks society and culture likely are steering girls and young women away from math and STEM fields. Studies have shown that families tend to spend more time engaging young boys in play that involves spatial cognition, and teachers often spend more time with boys during math class, which is related to their later math achievements. Children can readily pick up on cues from teachers and parents' expectations for math abilities. Perceiving parents and teachers having a lower expectation in their math skills will negatively affect children's math achievement, making them less confident to pursue STEM fields.

Studies like this remind us that boys and girls are more similar than they are different, and the slight differences in how we treat them can aggregate into big impacts. It's hard to overcome habits, but parents and educators alike shall take caution not to exacerbate gender inequalities.

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