Stereotypes about girls and maths don't add up, and the research proves it

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Girls' and boys' brains function much the same way.
Girls' and boys' brains function much the same way.

Girls and boys have no differences in brain function or maths ability, according to researchers who used imaging to analyse kids' brain development.

The study is the latest to debunk the common myth that women are less suited to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields due to biological shortfalls in maths aptitude, the researchers said.

First neuroimaging study

"Science doesn't align with folk beliefs," said senior author Jessica Cantlon, a professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"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," she said in a university news release.

In what they described as the first neuroimaging study to evaluate biological differences in maths aptitude in boys and girls, Cantlon and her team used functional MRI to assess brain activity in 55 girls and 49 boys as the children watched an educational video covering basic maths skills like counting and addition.

There were no differences in the brain development of girls and boys, and no differences in how they processed maths or their levels of engagement while watching the videos.

"It's not just that boys and girls are using the maths network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain," said study first author Alyssa Kersey, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of Chicago.

Equal performance

"This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different," she added in the release.

The study was recently published in the journal Science of Learning.

The team had previously reported that young girls and boys have equal performance on a range of maths tests.

Society and culture steer girls and young women away from maths and STEM fields, Cantlon said.

Previous studies have found that families spend more time with young boys in play that involves spatial cognition – an ability to understand three-dimensional spaces. Many teachers also spend more time with boys during maths class, and children often pick up on cues from parents' expectations for maths abilities.

"Typical socialisation can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and maths," Cantlon said. "We need to be cognisant of these origins to ensure we aren't the ones causing the gender inequities."

Image credit: iStock

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