Learning Math: Are Boys Better Than Girls?

How to boost girls' beliefs that math careers are achievable.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

Halfpoint/DepositPhotos
Source: Halfpoint/DepositPhotos

While gender differences in learning math have long been debated, new research debunks an old myth about the math abilities of boys and girls.

Women have surpassed men in college enrollment and degree attainment, with one exception. Mathematics continues to be a male-dominated field. Despite STEM educational programs (science, technology, engineering, and math) around the globe, these areas of study remain underrepresented by women, creating a math gender gap.

Are boys inherently better at math than girls? Do their brains have a higher aptitude for numbers? Or are boys more positively influenced by subtle psychological factors that boost their confidence in math?

In a new groundbreaking study from the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, and Carnegie Mellon, researchers investigated the early biology of math and gender. The journal article, "Gender Similarities in the Brain During Mathematics Development," summarizes the study and concludes unequivocally that learning math is similar in boys and girls. In fact, math processes engage the same neural networks of the brain, regardless of gender, during the critical years of cognitive development.  

To compare the neural processes involved in learning math, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to ascertain the brain activity of 3- to 10-year-old children as they observed video clips of math skills like counting and addition. They compared the results to the brain images of adults who watched the same videos, looking at how neural activity was similar or different.

If boys were inherently better at learning math than girls, as many have believed for decades, their brains would show a biological origin for this strength during the crucial years of mathematical development.  

Yet researchers found no such link. In fact, their findings suggested that learning math was statistically equivalent from the perspective of neural processing. Girls and boys learned math at similar rates. As they interacted with math videos, girls and boys drew on the same areas of the brain known for their association with math ability. Boys did not have a higher aptitude for learning math or for processing numbers than their female counterparts.

Why Society Should Care About the Math Gender Gap

According to the National Science Foundation, jobs in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences have the smallest gender pay gaps and align with some of the highest areas of job growth in the global economy. With fewer women choosing to pursue careers in these fields, gender income inequality will rise.

Math and science careers are incubators for social and technological innovation. Employees are working to solve some of the most important challenges of our time, including the development of renewable energy sources, treatments for diseases like cancer and malaria, and providing communities with clean drinking water. Math-related professionals are designing buildings, computers, cars, and medical equipment.

When women are underrepresented in these careers, their voices, needs, and desires are not heard. Innovation suffers. With a more diverse workforce, products and services will be better designed.

It will take parents and educators willing to address the math gender gap, debunk the myth that boys are better at learning math than girls, and take action to help girls believe they can achieve at math before young women will be equally represented in the science and math fields.

To do this, psychology will play as important of a role as girls’ math abilities.

The Psychology of Learning Math

The new research on gender similarities of learning math leads to the conclusion that other, more complex factors underlie the math gender gap.

Another group of researchers pursued the question: How do girls’ and boy’s mathematics ability beliefs relate to different career outcomes? Specifically, their research suggests that even at the same levels of ability, girls believe their math abilities are lower than boys.

In "Gendered Pathways: How Mathematics Ability Belief Shape Secondary and Postsecondary Course and Degree Field Choices," these researchers outlined key concepts that can help improve girl’s belief in themselves, encourage them to pursue their love of learning math, and guide them to successful careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Two concepts outlined in their report are straightforward and easier to achieve:

  • Girls are not often aware of the clear steps from high school through college that are essential to budding female scientists. Students should consult with a school advisor early.
  • Taking physics and calculus in high school dramatically increases girls’ chances of choosing math-related college majors.

The next two concepts are more psychologically complex:

  • Girls tend to underperform when faced with negative stereotypes. For example, when they are reminded of boys' dominance in learning math, they perform lower on academic tests. The stereotype acts as a stressor to performance.
  • Girls who have a growth vs. a fixed mindset about learning math are likely to believe in their abilities, an essential pathway toward scientific degrees.

The new gender research makes a strong case for what other researchers, like Carol Dweck, have long suspected—that the psychology of learning math is as important for girls as their math abilities. With decades of negative stereotypes, lack of role models, and subtle messages that suggest their inferiority, girls have been left out of some of the most important and lucrative careers of our time.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research with growth mindsets and math performance sheds light on the psychology of learning math. She explains why girls with fixed mindsets are susceptible to setbacks and stereotypes.

Dweck says, “Stereotypes are stories about gifts—about who has them and who doesn’t. So, if you believe in a math gift and your environment tells you that your group doesn’t have it, then that can be disheartening. But if, instead, you believe that math ability can be cultivated through your efforts, then the stereotype is less credible.”

One of Dweck’s studies involved two groups of junior high math students. One group was taught about their brain, how it formed new connections when they learned new things, and how that learning increased over time. The other group served as a control and was not taught about the brain. Before the intervention, both groups had declining math scores.

After the intervention, the group that received the message that their brains can grow earned significantly higher math grades than the control group. But even more interesting was what happened with boys and girls.

In the control group, girls performed as they typically would—less well than boys. But in the group that received the “growth mindset” message, the difference between boys and girls disappeared.

Dweck’s work suggests that psychological factors associated with girls learning math at a similar level as boys are as important as developing girl’s math abilities.    

What message should parents and teachers send to girls?

If you enjoy learning math and want to succeed in a mathematics field, you can work hard and develop your abilities. It’s that simple.

References

Dweck, C. (2007). “Is math a gift? Beliefs that put females at risk,” in Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence, eds S. C. Ceci and W. M. Williams (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association), 47–55.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., and St. Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC.

Kersey, A. J., Csumitta, K. D., & Cantlon, J. F. (2019). Gender similarities in the brain during mathematics development. Npj Science of Learning, 4(1). doi:10.1038/s41539-019-0057-x 

Morgan, S. L., Gelbgiser, D., and Weeden, K. A. (2013). Feeding the Pipeline: gender, occupational plans, and college major selection. Soc. Sci. Res. 42, 989–1005. doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2013.03.008

National Science Foundation (2016). Science & Engineering Indicators 2016. Arlington, VA.