The notion that math is a “boys’ subject” does not stand up to hard evidence, according to researchers. A study finds that girls and boys are equally capable of understanding math.
The study, published in NPJ Science of Learning, tested 104 children ages 3 to 10, 55 of whom were girls. The children watched a video explaining basic math concepts such as counting and addition, while the scientists tracked the children’s brain activity using an MRI scanner.
The results indicated no difference between the girls and boys’ brain activity. Both boys and girls appeared equally tuned in to the videos and registered the concepts equally well, according to the researchers. The researchers also examined a math test taken by 97 children ages 3 to 8 and found that the boy and girl test-takers all had equivalent scores.
The study findings run counter to assertions by some male researchers, such as fired Google engineer James Damore, that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries because men’s brains are inherently better at science and math. Women are in the minority in STEM fields: Only 35.5% of STEM students nationwide in 2015-2016 were women, and women were only 33.7% of PhD-level STEM students. But this study’s authors attribute the gender disparity to cultural expectations and pressures on women to pursue non-STEM fields, and not to lack of skill.
“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,” said Jessica Cantlon, Carnegie Mellon University professor of developmental neuroscience and senior author of the paper.