Keep Sexism Out of Math

Neuroscience says so.

Posted Nov 24, 2019

For anyone still claiming that women pursue careers in math less frequently than men because of biological differences: let that misinformation go. Little evidence has ever supported that school of thought, and the minimal amounts that have never successfully disentangled intrinsic biological factors from sociocultural ones. 

Pexels/Pixabay
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Earlier this month, researchers published a study showing that the neural functioning of boys and girls doing math was significantly similar. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—a method that links brain activity to changes in blood flow—to determine what regions of young boys’ and girls’ (gender as reported by parents) brains are engaged when they’re doing math.

Boys and girls ages 3-10 watched video clips that targeted early childhood mathematics skills like addition and counting. Researchers then compared the brain activity of each child with every other child, and then with every adult in a large comparison group. This provided measurements for child vs. adult “neural maturity”—a child with high neural maturity has a brain that performs (based on fMRI) like an adult’s would during mathematical processing—as well as child vs. child “neural similarity.”

Juraj Varga/Pixabay
Source: Juraj Varga/Pixabay

They found no difference in neural maturity based on the gender of the adult comparison group, and across multiple neural analyses boy and girl brains were equally engaged while watching the video clips. Much of their brain activity was focused in their intraparietal sulci, an area of the brain with distinct subregions that have been implicated in perceptual-motor coordination—for example, seeing a pen and then accurately reaching for it—and visual short-term memory, but also in processing numerical information, which further supported their findings. 

In the end, this work showed statistical equivalence between boys and girls in terms of neural maturity and engagement with mathematics, which suggests that gender differences in mathematics fields do not stem from intrinsic biological differences in children, but more likely the environment to which we subject them.