A new study has found no difference whatsoever in the brains of young boys and girls when it comes to innate math abilities, challenging the old prejudice that boys tend to be better at math than girls.
An old sexist myth debunked
Currently, STEM fields (fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are notoriously male-dominated, with many people believing, without actual scientific grounds, that the gap is due to the fact that men are inherently better at the sort of logical and mathematical thinking that these disciplines require.
However, there’s plenty of evidence showing that’s simply not true. This research, published Friday in the journal Science of Learning, is just the latest in a series of studies that have found the same level of math ability in young males and females. The gap does seems to appear at a later age, but no evidence from developmental cognition has actually been found to explain it. Rather, research suggests the reason why more men than women end up in STEM fields is actually grounded in social standards rather than biology.
Jessica Cantlon, professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the study’s authors, had already conducted significant research that suggested boys and girls as old as 8 were equally good at grasping basic math concepts and perceiving numbers. This time around, though, the study focused not only on behavioral evidence, but actually took a look at what was happening inside the children’s brains.
To do so, the team used an MRI to capture images of the brain activity in 104 children, aged 3 to 10, as they performed simple math tasks. The participants were given a standardized match test as well, and they also watched educational videos about counting, addition, and other math topics, in order to determine whether mathematical grasp varied based on gender.
“They are indistinguishable,” Cantlon says. “You can’t tell one group from the other.”
Even the engagement the videos and activities generated was equal in boys and girls, showing young girls are not any less interested in the topics than their male counterparts.
What’s with the gap?
So if it’s not biology, what does explain the gap in fields like mathematics, science, or engineering? Many things can account for this, and though scientists are still trying to confirm the reason, there are already plenty of likely explanations.
For example, society may be sending the wrong message to young girls about the difficulties of entering a professional field that is entirely dominated by men, which might discourage them from even trying. That could be part of the problem.
But there are other theories. In another study, researchers were surprised to learn that while females performed just as well as males—if not better—in science in 67% of countries, women in wealthier nations that had more gender equality (America included) were less likely to get degrees in STEM fields than women in poorer countries.
David Geary, professor at the University of Missouri and co-author of this particular paper, suspects that not only are females in wealthy societies less pressured to pursue careers with high salaries (which, combined with society’s message about these fields, makes them even less interested in struggling to get into them), but males are also more likely overall to pick science because they demonstrably less likely to have good language skills than women.
A study of gender achievements in the U.S. supports this latter hypothesis. It found that on the whole, across all school districts, there was no gender achievement gap in mathematics, but there was in reading, where men were on average almost a year behind women. That means that while women are no worse at math than men, they are better at language, making men overall feel more inclined to pursue science.
Whatever the explanation for the gap, however, it’s good to see we have no basis to discriminate on the basis of sex when it comes to mathematical abilities. So it is definitely time to put that old and harmful prejudice to rest once and for all.
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