Story at a glance

  • Brain scans of kids under 10 years old show no gender difference in how they perform math equations.
  • Previous studies looked at standardized tests, which don’t differentiate between learned and innate behavior.
  • The study joins an already large pile of evidence against the stereotype that boys are better at math.
  • The study's authors say that differences in math achievement are probably due to social cues.

A new study published in Science of Learning provides more evidence that there isn’t a biological difference between boys’ and girls’ ability to do math. The myth persists that boys are innately better at math than girls, despite evidence to the contrary from analyzing test scores.

"But there was this lingering question of what's going on under the hood? Is it the same neural mechanism that allows them to accomplish this equivalent behavior?" Jessica Cantlon, the senior author of the study, told CNN.

Researchers at the University of Rochester and Carnegie Mellon University tackled this question by scanning the brains of 104 children between the ages of 3 and 10 while they did math assignments. Certain parts of the brain do the bulk of the work when a person does math, so the researchers measured brain activity in these areas and compared the results by gender.

"They are indistinguishable," Cantlon told NPR of the brain scans. “You can't tell one group from the other."

Cantlon suggest that differences in math ability and interest in studying STEM topics is probably something that kids pick up over time socially. For example, teachers have been shown to spend more time working with boys on math, and kids are quick to pick up on parents’ expectations for their performance in different subjects, Cantlon told CNN. Other research has found that achievement differences in reading and writing — where girls outperform boys — might push males away from related fields later in their careers, reported NPR.

Surveys continue to show that people think girls are worse at math than boys, and girls themselves generally have higher math anxiety and lower confidence in their math skills than boys.

"We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren't the ones causing the gender inequities," Cantlon told CNN.

Published on Nov 08, 2019