No Gender Difference in adapting Math Abilities

Brain function or math ability is the same in the brain development of young boys and girls.

No Gender Difference in adapting Math Abilities
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No Gender Difference in adapting Math Abilities

No Gender Difference in adapting Math Abilities


New research comprehensively examined the brain development of young boys and girls. Their research shows no gender difference in brain function or math ability.

Barbie dolls are really a favorite toy for girls. This toy created a controversy with its voice fragment in 1992. Some of the dolls voiced "Math class is hard" and inflamed negative public opinions on that. The incident indicates women’s weakness to adopt science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and also the age-old myth about the lack of women’s contribution to the development of these fields. The main cause was thought to be their biological deficiencies in math aptitude. 


Jessica Cantlon is a renowned professor working at the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. She came with research that shows human brains can equally adapt math aptitudes, whether man or woman. Her study focuses on the brain development of young boys and girls. There is no gender discrimination found in this test. You can get the results online in the journal Science of Learning published on November 8.   

Cantlon said, "Science doesn't align with folk beliefs." Professor Mary Ann Zdrojkowski of Developmental Neuroscience at CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences is also a senior author of the research paper. "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."


Cantlon’s team is the first to conduct neuroimaging studies of young children. In dealing with math aptitude, biological gender differences have been evaluated in this study.


There were 104 young children ranging from 3 to 10 years. Among them 55 were girls. For measuring their brain activity, the team used functional MRI. It was done when they were watching educational math videos on counting and addition. They evaluated brain similarity by comparing the scan results of boys and girls. Besides this examination, they also tested brain maturity. The result of the previous study was compared to another one. The later experiment was done on a group of adults (63 adults; 25 women). They watched the same videos that the children watched.  


After completing a series of statistical comparisons, they came to the decision that girls’ and boys’ brains are the same, no difference. Both the boy’s and girl’s brain processed math skills while watching the videos. The later comparison between the results of the children and adults shows that the brain maturity of boys and girls is statistically equivalent.    


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


The Test of Early Mathematics Ability is also a subject of research for the project. They took 97 children including 50 girls. Their age limit was 3 to 8 years. The team did this to estimate the rate of math development. It does not matter what gender or age of the children is, their math ability was equivalent. They did not find any gender difference between maths ability and brain maturity in the entire research.  


The team also made experiments on mathematics tests between young boys and girls. The new results are equivalent to the previous works.  

Cantlon is in the opinion that society and culture tend to keep away girls and young women away from math and STEM fields. Their previous studies show that families like to spend more time with boys rather than girls in the games involving spatial cognition. The teachers also believe that boys are more adaptive to maths than girls and spend more time with them in the class. 


"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."


The results of this project base on a limited set of math tasks. Cantlon wants to go further with some other researches with math skills. The upcoming projects she will work may include spatial processing and memory. She also wants to continue the experiment for a longer period. 


Kelsey Csumitta joined Cantlon and Kersey at the University of Rochester on the study, titled "Gender Similarities in the Brain during Mathematics Development." The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health-funded the research.