Boys’ and Girls’ Brains the Same When It Comes to Math

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 12, 2019 2 min read

Boys and girls start out on the same biological footing when it comes to math, according to the first neuroimaging study of math gender differences in children.

The studies add more fuel to the ongoing debate over the causes and potential ways to close gender gaps in math in the United States. Prior studies have found gender gaps tend to change over time and from country to country (and even one school district to another).

Yet one lingering question has been whether boys and girls should be looked at as different groups or the same group when it comes to math ability. That’s what Jessica Canton, professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, and her colleagues were trying to figure out in one study published last week in the journal Science of Learning.

“We’re using a kind of statistics that lets us ask, is this one heterogeneous group where there’s individual variability in math ability ... or is this two groups and the variability breaks down on gender lines?” she said. “We are able to show that this is in fact one group. Everybody has similar brain structure, functions, the spatial and temporal patterns are the same. Their behavior is the same.”

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Rochester asked about a hundred boys and girls, ages 3 to 10, and about 60 adults, to watch clips from educational television shows while being monitored in an fMRI, which measures patterns of brain activity. As they watched clips on basic math tasks like addition, the researchers measured activity in both their brains overall and in specific parts of the brain associated with performing math. The researchers compared each child’s brain activity to others of their own gender, the other gender, and adults.

They found boys and girls were equally engaged in watching the shows. Statistical analyses showed no differences in the way boys and girls processed math in the brain, and they were developing at the same rate.

Prior studies have shown a wider variety in boys’ performance on standardized tests, with more scoring at both the higher and lower ends of the bell curve than girls do. But Canton and her colleagues didn’t find that sort of variation among boys and girls in this study—if anything, Canton said, girls varied a little more than boys in the study.

Photo: A child engages in a math task in a series of studies on gender differences in math ability. Source: Carnegie Mellon

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.