Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why men don't listen and women are great at maths

Ask the average person on the street if men and women are wired differently and you'll more often than not get an affirmatory response. Not overly suprising given the knowledge that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Am I right? But dive a little deeper and chances are you'll find that the vast majority of people would be relying heavily on deeply ingrained stereotypes, such as the "mythically superior 'multitasking’ abilities" of women or men who just don't listen, rather than on any scientifically verified information (although in fairness the bit about men not listening is probably true). Nonetheless, the fact that we rely on such stereotypes is not generally an issue, after all the human brain is a master at creating these categorical shortcuts in an effort to conserve its resources. However when these shortcuts are being used to endorse segregation in schools or distinct parenting styles based on gender, those of us who can spot the neuroscience from the neurononsense have a responsibility to take action. 

Sum differences aren't what they seem 

There is no denying that differences do actually exist between the male and female brain. For example whilst the global cerebral blood flow is higher in the female brain, the male brain is on average 11% larger and consists of a higher proportion of white matter than its female counterpart. However it can also be said that males are, on average, 9% taller and 18% heavier than females, thus suggests that the larger brain size is merely another representation of readily observable sexual dimorphism between men and women. Rather than an indication that the male brain is more suited to such non-emotive skills as spatial relations and mathematics. But if the differences in underlying neuronal connections between the sexes aren't to blame for the fact that over 70% of maths PhDs are men, who is? As it would turn out, we are. Or more specifically it's society's fault!

A recent study by husband and wife team Jonathon Kane and Janet Mertz investigated gender differences in mathematics performance and participation rates using scores from the internationally standardised OECD Program for International Student Assessment math test (2003 and 2009) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (2003 and 2007) . These data sets gave Kane and Mertz access to data from over 80 countries, with a 31-country overlap, and enabled them to rule out low-living standards, coeducational environments and innate variability among boys as potential causes for gender bias. Instead the study pointed to prevailing societal views and gender equity as the root of the problem. Maths pun intended.

Put simply the data showed that overall girls and boys performed equally well when it came to maths, so no evidence of biological variability there. But perhaps more importantly, both girls and boys from cultures with a higher level of gender equity performed better in the tests. Or as Kane puts it "Women doing better end up raising their kids better."

But if both boys and girls perform equally, what’s with the lack of female mathematicians? For starters, it would appear that thegender gap doesn’t rear its’ ugly head until the young women start thinking abouttheir future careers. Insert a steady drone of societal tut-tutting about womenand numbers in the background and it’s little wonder that most women choose a careeroutside of maths (and science and engineering). The gap is essentially formedby the self-fulfilling prophecy that is this stereotype. Women are told thatthey can’t do maths, so they don’t do maths. Thus the small numbers of women whochoose a career in maths act as proof that women can’t do maths. And so the farce continues.

From stereotype to societal change

On paper, getting women back in the maths class is as straightforward as giving them equal rights and equal pay before saying "Hey, turns out we're all great at maths." Sadly, in reality it's not quite so simple. Firstly, as it would turn out the aforementioned benefits which stereotypes bestow us regarding our cognitive resources ensure that they are deeply ingrained and so incredibly hard to shake. Secondly, any apparent differences between the genders, no matter how carefully reported, are often distorted and propagated by the media (see The Female Brain as a great example of such neurononsense or The Gender Delusion for an eloquent debunking of such myths). And they do this for the simple reason that biological gender differences fascinate us. And so they should.

As scientist, reporters, or simply those who know better (here's that responsibility to act I was talking about earlier) we cannot ignore the possibility that gender differences exist. Nor should we. We should continue to look for them through our proverbial microscopes with a fervour that verges on mania. But, to paraphrase Lise Eliot, we must also be mindful. Mindful to communicate the true magnitude and intricacy of these differences, in an effort to avoid more widespread misuse of such research.          



This post was written by Andrew Watt for A Hippo on Campus.


  1. As luck would have it, PLoS one have just published an article looking at gender differences in personality. Neuroscience or neurononsense?

  2. Andrew - love this post! I've done a lot of research in this area, and love anyone who can sum up (ha HA) the argument in a succinct manner. If you're interested in checking out more on this topic - check out my non-succinct Masters thesis, "Imagining a World Where Paris Hilton Loves Mathematics," here: - would love to hear your thoughts!


    1. Thanks Vanessa, glad you enjoyed it. I've downloaded your thesis (great title by the way) and will try to give it a look over in the next week or so. Thanks again for your comments and be sure to keep those puns coming!


  3. Great post! I think understanding helps, but we should move past that to HOW to get them to least that is what I've been thinking. Not sure if it falls into the category of neuroscience, but in my experience, choosing a better time to talk to my husband or going someplace with less distractions has been instrumental in improving our communication.

    1. Thanks Susanna and thanks for the post link as well. Communication is obviously the next step when it comes to debunking these myths and effective communication is something that will no doubt involve ensuring that the right time and place is used to get our message across. It's certainly going to be interesting to see whether those of us who know better are going to be able to elicit a change in popular opinion over the coming years. I for one am quietly optimistic!

  4. You said that 'the gender gap doesn’t rear its’ ugly head until the young women start thinking abouttheir future careers', but according to my experience, the gender gap starts even when in kindergardens. I don't know if the phenomenon related to the ways of teaching or not.

  5. My Senior year of High school (2000) my advanced math class had 14 students, of which 9 were female. When the Scholarship awards night came I watched as the top 3 women rake in $10-30K each in scholarships (mostly due to high GPA (4.0+), writing skills and the Adv math class). The top boy pulled in only 8K (I pulled in 1K and was lucky to get that). All three women mentioned previously went directly to a university to study Physics and the sciences. All three switched out of the college of science. 1 went to Kineseology, 1 got a teaching degree and the third got a business degree. I later spoke to one and she said that after getting straight C's her first couple quarters she switched so that she could re-claim her higher GPA!?!? (I for one have never cared about GPA, HS, college or otherwise)
    Anyways, three things come to mind:
    1. comptetiveness
    2. performance under pressures
    3. repeating the study above with upper-division college math and Engineering courses. I say this because after working with Women and men before and after entering the college of Engineering women tended to out perform the men right up until mid to late calculus. At which point the problems went from simple numbers and equation crunching to actual word problems and theory - this is when I noticed some of the women falling way behind and quickly. I had heard at one time men are more spatial of thinkers than women could this be part of why (or just another in-correct stereotype?)

    I find the point the article is trying to make, that men and women are mathematical equals, is likely false for those in mid to upper college. This is based largely on my years of experience tutoring Math, Physics and Engineering for a couple Universities. The Men just tended to do better on complicated math problems than the Women.

    Good Article.

  6. Hey there,

    I'm doing a blog series on the fallacy of assigning our gender roles to Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors. I wish I'd seen these sources first! They're fantastic; I'll have to come back to them for another article. Since I'm approaching the subject from an Evolutionary Bio perspective, a lot of the neuroscience is right under my radar... "The Gender Delusion" will slot into my interests beautifully, and I just might have to buy it.

    Do you mind if I quote you? Sources will be cited.