Girls are believed to avoid STEM careers because they think they are not as good at those subjects (Credit: Geralt/Pixabay/CC0)

The low percentage of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers is often attributed to men being believed to be better at the sort of thinking those fields require. Though several studies have debunked the myth, they have largely been based on results acquired from various standardized tests. Now, researchers from Pennsylvania's Carnegie Mellon University have found evidence that is hard to overlook: brain scans proving that young girls and boys use the same mechanisms and networks in the brain to solve math problems.

The groundbreaking neuroimaging study to evaluate the biological gender differences in the math aptitude of young children was led by the university's professor of neuroscience, Jessica Cantlon. For their study, the team selected 104 young children, between 3 and 10 years old, split almost equally by gender. The scientists used a functional MRI to observe their brain activity as they engaged in math tasks. These included watching age-appropriate educational videos —including clips from Sesame Street — and doing math exercises such as counting and addition, as well as reading for comparison.

​​​​​​Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon found that the brain math abilities are not determined by gender
(Credit: Carnegie Mellon University)

"We looked at which areas of the brain respond more strongly to mathematics content in the videos and tasks, compared to non-math content like reading or the alphabet. So you can define the math network that way by looking at regions that respond more strongly," Cantlon said. "When we do that in little girls, we see a particular network of the brain (respond), and when we do that same analysis in boys, we see the exact same regions." She adds, "You can overlay the network from girls on top of the network from boys, and they are identical."

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science of Learning on November 8, 2019, also found no difference in math ability between genders when they compared the results of a standardized math test for 3- to 8-year-old children from 97 participants.

So why do girls and young women tend to avoid math and STEM careers in general? Cantlon believes it may have to do with societal and cultural biases. Previous studies have indicated that the unconscious prejudice begins at home, with parents spending more time with young boys in play that involves spatial cognition — such as toys that entail learning number skills and shapes and solving puzzles. The researcher thinks girls pick up on the cues from their parents' expectations for math abilities, and start to believe they are not good at the subject. Educators were also observed to show a similar bias by spending more time with boys during math class.

Cantlon believes society and culture may be responsible for steering girls and young women away from STEM careers (Credit:Carnegie Mellon University)

"Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math," Cantlon said. "We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren't the ones causing the gender inequities."

David Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri who conducted a separate gender gap study, found that affluence may also be a factor. His research, using an international database on adolescent achievement in science, mathematics, and reading, indicated that females in wealthier, more progressive countries like the US, shied away from pursuing STEM degrees. Geary believes the reason could be because women in these countries do not have the same pressures to enter a field that promises a lucrative career. They, therefore, choose to pursue careers in subjects they find more interesting.

Psychologist David Geary believes girls in wealthier, progressive countries are more inclined to pursue other interests

St. John's University's Erin Fahle came to a similar conclusion when she researched the issue. The assistant professor at the School of Education says that when she looked at the results of test scores from all US school districts combined, there was no discernable difference in the math abilities between boys and girls. However, when she separated out the more affluent school districts, boys did better at the subject than girls.

Though the researchers may offer several reasons for why girls avoid STEM subjects, they all agree that mental capacity is not one of them! Hopefully, the findings will encourage more girls and young women to start thinking about pursuing futures in STEM.