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Trending Science: Are boys really better at math? No, says new study

Scientists find that young girls and boys have the same math ability.

Fundamental Research

For years, academia has tried to debunk the myth that women don’t thrive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields because of biological deficiencies in math aptitude. Even industry has come on board with innovative initiatives and projects to reverse women’s underrepresentation in STEM. According to a study in the journal ‘Science of Learning’, girls and boys have similar brains and have an equal aptitude for math. The research team used a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to measure the brain activity in 104 children aged between 3 and 10 years old, 55 of whom were girls. They watched an educational video covering math concepts like counting and addition. The team then compared all the scan results.

Girls inferior at math? It doesn’t add up

To compare the brain activity of the children to that of adults, the neuroscientists invited 38 men and 25 women to watch the same videos. The findings show there was no difference between the children’s brain functions or development. The boys’ and girls’ brains were equally engaged, processed the information the same way and revealed no major differences. The team also analysed the results of a math ability test taken by 97 children aged between 3 and 8 years old, 50 of whom were girls. Both genders performed equally well, irrespective of age. “Science doesn’t align with folk beliefs,” said senior author Jessica Cantlon, a professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States. “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.”

Who’s to blame for the stereotype?

Is society and culture directing girls and young women away from STEM disciplines because of preconceived notions about math abilities? Are kids picking up on the subconscious cues from educators and families about expectations concerning their abilities? “Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math,” Prof. Cantlon explained. “We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren’t the ones causing the gender inequities.” “It’s not just that boys and girls are using the math network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain,” lead author Alyssa Kersey, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, told ‘Newsweek’. “This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different.” The research builds on the study findings from Prof. Cantlon and her team in 2018. It examined the test performance data of 500 boys and girls. No difference was found in their early quantitative or mathematical ability. This suggested that boys and girls are equally prepared to reason about mathematics during early childhood.

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