Boys are not naturally better than girls when it comes to maths, new study debunks age-old myth

The study addressed the myth that women do not thrive in the fields of science, mathematics, engineering, and medicine (STEM) due to biological deficiencies in math aptitude


                            Boys are not naturally better than girls when it comes to maths, new study debunks age-old myth

You may have heard the stereotype that boys are better than girls in maths. However, a new study concluded that girls and boys show similar math aptitude and brain function, challenging this age-old notion. 

The study tries to address the myth which suggests that women do not thrive in the fields of science, mathematics, engineering and medicine (STEM) due to biological deficiencies in math aptitude. 

"Science doesn't align with folk beliefs," says the study's senior author Jessica Cantlon. "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," says Cantlon, who is the Ronald J. and Mary Ann Zdrojkowski professor of developmental neuroscience at CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The research team conducted multiple experiments and found maths ability was equal among the children, irrespective of their gender. The researchers also did not find any differences in brain development between girls and boys.

The current study is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different, says Alyssa Kersey, a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago and the study's first author.

According to Canton, previous studies exploring sex differences in math most likely stem from intuitive biases. “People sometimes argue that human men and boys are better at math than girls and women -- but in a 2010 study with half a million kids, we see that the gender gap in mathematics is small and narrowing. And in some countries there's no difference at all or even an advantage for girls in math,” Canton told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). 

With real data emerging on the phenomenon, Canton believes, some intuitions about the causes of gender differences in math are being proven wrong.

In order to evaluate biological gender differences in math aptitude of young children, Cantlon and her team measured brain activities in the children.

Jessica Cantlon and a child working on a math game (Carnegie Mellon University)

The team gathered 104 young children — from 3 to 10 years of age and 55 girls — for the study. As the children were made to watch an educational video covering early math topics, like counting and addition, the researchers measured the activity in their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. They compared these results between boys and girls to evaluate brain similarity.

With further analysis, Cantlon and her team could show that boys and girls showed no difference in brain development. They also found no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills.

Next, the team investigated brain maturity in children. Here, they also measured brain activities in adults while they were made to watch the same videos shown to the children.

“We showed that brain maturity is the same between boys and girls.” Canton told MEAWW. Boys and girls show similar brain activity patterns to adults, she adds. 

While these tests provide evidence of similarity between the children, the researchers performed another test to gauge the rate of math development. For this, they included  97 participants (50 girls) and gave them a standardized test for 3- to 8-year-old children: Test of Early Mathematics Ability.

The results showed that math ability was equivalent among the children, regardless of gender or age. 

Despite this, only 28% of women are in the science and engineering workforce. According to Cantlon, society and culture may be steering girls and young women away from math and STEM fields. Previous studies, she adds, 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," explains Cantlon.

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