A tired stereotype about men and women's brains has been debunked

No, the sexes are not hard-wired to process mathematical information differently, scientists say.

teacher in classroom

Whether it’s the — mostly male — television personalities that present science to the masses (Bill Nye the Science Guy, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson… ), or the — again, mostly male — heroes of hit films about math and science like A Beautiful Mind, our cultural conscience is laced with oblique signals that reinforce a tired gender stereotype: Boys are just better at math and science than are girls.

But the idea that boys are more adept at math and science than girls has no foundation in the brain, according to new research.

Previous research, much of which is either very old or else done in rodents, has found gender differences in how well males and females perform on math tests, says Jessica Cantlon, the study’s lead author and professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

But this study is the first to look at human neurobiology to try to understand whether supposed gender differences in mathematical ability are grounded in biology.

“Up until recently, we haven’t had any data on how cognitive abilities arise in human brains,” Cantlon tells Inverse. This study is among the first to be able to challenge these old assumptions, she says.

The findings contradict the widely-held idea that boys and girls are hard-wired to approach math problems differently. They also underscore the need to break bad education habits at home and at school that reinforce damaging gender stereotypes.

“Socially, we have intuitions about the degree to which people who look biologically different to us might be similar or different,” says Cantlon. “We expect differences in the neural machinery underwiring our behaviors.”

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

“Fundamental similarities”

Cantlon’s team recorded the brain activity patterns of 104 boys and girls between 3 and 10 years old while they watched and listened to math education clips of audio and video.

They then performed a series of analyses to try and establish whether there were differences in activity patterns between the boys and girls, or whether they attended to mathematical information differently. But across all the analyses, girls and boys show no differences in how they process or engage with mathematical information.

Jessica Cantlon child math game
Researcher Jessica Cantlon and a child work together on a math game.

“We are showing that there is a fundamental similarity between boys and girls in terms of the machinery that they use to do mathematics, as well as their early mathematics performance,” says Cantlon. The same seems true of teens and older men and women, she says.

To test this, the researchers looked at whether the brain activity patterns of girls and boys looked more or less similar to those of adult men or women, or both. They found that girls’ and boys’ patterns of neural activation had just as much in common with adults of the opposite gender as they did with adults of the same gender.

That suggests the mechanisms that underlie math processing don’t change as either gender ages. So whatever differences individuals show in their math abilities, these differences can’t be explained by their gender.

“What we are seeing in this case is that there is a similar blueprint for how the brain functions are established and that applies equally to little girls and little boys,” says Cantlon.

Combating societal biases

In a 2018 study, Cantlon’s team found that young boys and girls show no differences in their mathematical skills on a series of standard math and numeracy tests. The new research builds on that result: In the new study, the researchers compared their brain scan data to boys’ and girls’ scores on a math test. Again, they didn’t see any significant differences in children of either gender’s performance.

Taken together, the results suggest that how families and educators teach boys and girls math needs to change.

“There is a lot of individual variability in how people perform,” on math tests, she says. “But that variability isn’t described by their gender.”

Previous research has found that how some families approach math education for children changes depending on their gender. At the same time, math teachers’ biases may lead them to spend more time working with boys in the classroom, potentially leaving girls to go it alone. Parental expectations could also influence their children’s ambitions when it comes to math and science.

Social norms mean boys may be pulled into more math-based play and activities than are girls, potentially setting boys up to pursue more science-oriented careers than do girls. It’s well-known that science suffers from serious gender disparities.  

Combating these biases and behaviors will take “vigilance,” Cantlon says.

“You can’t look at somebody’s gender and know anything in particular about their cognitive abilities might function,” she says.

Media via Carnegie Mellon University, CSA Images / Getty