Genetics and the Brain

Ayesha Azeem ‘23

womenStem
Figure 1. Women have been underrepresented in the STEM field due to stereotypes and gender bias. 

Our society currently witnesses an underrepresentation of females in most ‘heavy’ science and mathematics fields, including technology and engineering. Though some may argue that the unfair proportions are due to biological differences, little evidence supports this claim. Scientists study biological differences in the brain, and the brains of males and females are more similar than not. Though behavioral studies often find no gender differences in mathematical ability in early childhood, examining the differences in the developmental stage has not been explored. To investigate gender differences during mathematics development, researcher Alyssa Kersey and team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in 104 ten-year-old children, with 55 girls. The researchers enlisted three conditions in which they studied each participants’ fMRI; the children watched either a 20.3-minute educational video, an 11.6-minute educational video, or a pre-recorded track of someone reciting the alphabet with instrumental music playing in the background. 

The researchers first studied the participants’ neural maturity and found no differences between gender groups. Kersey found statistically equivalent levels of neural maturity in boys and girls, implying that the mathematics development processes occur at similar rates in both genders. Math ability, gender and their association were listed as predictors for neural maturity in a brain regression, which displayed that math ability predicted neural maturity in both gender groups. However, the researchers found no clear association between gender and math ability, indicating that math ability and neural maturity do not depend on gender. 

The researchers found no evidence of gender differences in neural responses to educational video viewing, mathematics content, or mathematical processing. Instead, the study revealed statistical equivalence in boys’ and girls’ neural maturity and abilities. Thus, the gender similarities in childhood mathematics prove that biological differences cannot account for the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields; instead, the social environment may have an impact on women’s career choices. Since few gender differences were noted in early mathematical ability, the gender differences observed in STEM careers cannot simply be explained by different neural networks, but rather complex social norms that encourage women to stray from scientific and mathematical careers.  

 

References:

  1. A. Kersey, et al., Gender similarities in the brain during mathematics development. Science of Learning, (2019). doi: 10.1038/s41539-019-0057-x.
  2. Image retrieved from: https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/24/2001958222/-1/-1/0/180802-F-SR919-002.JPG

 

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