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Developmental Biology - Brain Development

Brains of Girls and Boys Have Equal Math Ability

New research indicates there is no gender disparity in how children learn and perform math skills...

In 1992, Mattel Toys created a Barbie doll called 'Teen Talk Barbie' who spoke a controversial voice fragment, "Math class is hard." While the doll's release met a lot of public backlash, the underlying myth is still propagated that women cannot thrive in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) due to their biological inaptitude in math.

Jessica Cantlon at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has now led a research team to comprehensively examine the brain development of young boys and girls and found there is no gender difference in brain function or math ability. The research is available online in the November 8 issue of the journal Science of Learning.
"Science doesn't align with folk beliefs. We see that children's brains function similarly regardless of their gender. Hopefully, we can recalibrate expectations of what children can achieve in mathematics."

Jessica Cantlon PhD, the Ronald J. and Mary Ann Zdrojkowski Professor of Developmental Neuroscience, Carnegie Mellon University Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and senior author.

Cantlon and her team conducted the first neuroimaging study to evaluate biological gender differences in math aptitude of 104 children (55 of them girls aged 3 to 10 years old). Using functional MRI, researchers measured the children's brain activity while they watched an educational video covering topics such as counting and addition. They then compared scan results by gender to evaluate brain similarities. Additionally, researchers compared the children's scans to those taken from a group of 63 adults (25 of whom were women) who watched the same math videos.
After numerous statistical comparisons, Cantlon and her team found no difference in the brain development of girls and boys. In addition, the researchers found no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills and were equally engaged while watching math videos. Finally, boys' and girls' brain maturity were statistically equivalent when compared to either adult men or women.

"It's not just that boys and girls are using their math network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain," explains Alyssa Kersey, postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago and first author on the paper. "This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different."

Researchers also compared the results of the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, a standardized test for 3- to 8-year-old children, from 97 participants (50 girls) to gauge the rate of math development. They found that math ability was equivalent among the children and did not show a difference in gender or with age. Nor did the team find a gender difference between math ability and brain maturity.

The current study builds on this team's previous work which found equivalent behavioral performance on a range of mathematics tests between young boys and girls.

Cantlon said she thinks society and culture likely are steering girls and young women away from math and STEM fields. Previous studies show that families spend more time with young boys in play that involves spatial cognition. Many teachers also preferentially spend more time with boys during math class, predicting later math achievement. Finally, children often pick up on cues from their parent's expectations for math abilities.
"Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls and can snowball into how we treat them in science and math. We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren't the ones causing the gender inequities."

Jessica Cantlon PhD.

As this project is focused on early childhood development using a limited set of math tasks, Cantlon wants to continue the work using a broader array of math skills, such as spatial processing and memory, and follow the children over many more years.

Some scientists and public figures have hypothesized that women and men differ in their pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) owing to biological differences in mathematics aptitude. However, little evidence supports such claims. Some studies of children and adults show gender differences in mathematics performance but in those studies it is impossible to disentangle intrinsic, biological differences from sociocultural influences. To investigate the early biology of mathematics and gender, we tested for gender differences in the neural processes of mathematics in young children. We measured 3–10-year-old children’s neural development with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during naturalistic viewing of mathematics education videos. We implemented both frequentist and Bayesian analyses that quantify gender similarities and differences in neural processes. Across all analyses girls and boys showed significant gender similarities in neural functioning, indicating that boys and girls engage the same neural system during mathematics development.

Alyssa J. Kersey, Kelsey D. Csumitta and Jessica F. Cantlon.

The authors thank Rosa Li, Courtney Lussier, and Pat Weber for help with data collection and Rosa Li and Kamy Wakim for help with data processing. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (DRL-1459625 to J.F.C. and DGE- 1419118 to A.J.K.) and the National Institutes of Health (R01 HD064636 to J.F.C).

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nov 12 2019   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News  

Research shows no gender difference in brain function or math ability.

Research shows no gender difference in brain function or math ability. "Science doesn't align with folk beliefs." Jessica Cantlon and a child working on a math game. CREDIT Carnegie Mellon University.

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