Girls Avoiding STEM – What Neural Sex Differences Can and Cannot Tell Us

Despite the projected rise in job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in coming years, students in the United States trail several other nations in their performance in these disciplines. Moreover, the lack of women pursuing careers in these fields has been raising concern across America. Identifying the reasons contributing to the relative absence of women in STEM positions and developing relevant solutions could help bolster the United States’ presence in a world rapidly increasing its reliance on technology.

Though research has consistently demonstrated sex differences in performance in specific cognitive tasks, analysis of standardized test scores from recent years suggests that men and women have a similar understanding of mathematical principles. Accordingly, girls and boys appear to perform comparably in mathematics during their primary school years.

However, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown differences in neural activation patterns in men and women during performance of cognitive tasks in which they perform at equal levels. Such findings are perhaps not surprising given the sex differences in the functional organization of the brain and the observations that males and females use different cognitive strategies during learning.

Whereas the neural differences in men and women may not underlie differences in mathematical ability, they may partly explain the difference in the tendency for men and women to pursue careers in STEM. Certain sex differences appear to be present from birth and are thus not attributable to cultural influences. For example, newborn girls spend more time gazing at human faces, whereas newborn boys spend more time gazing at mechanical objects. These observations are consistent with the enhanced tendency for females to process emotional information and to perform better in cognitive tasks that incorporate emotional and social information. The way such information differentially influences male and female learning is likely a result of evolution. Indeed, it has been demonstrated even in bees that reproductive success, in females specifically, is enhanced by cooperative abilities that rely on perceiving and engaging in complex social behaviors.

Though cultural factors are often cited as deterrents for women’s entrance to STEM careers, the asymmetry in male and female representation in STEM jobs likely results from both cultural and biological influences. That the mechanisms of cognition and learning are different in males and females suggests that academic performance for members of each sex may differ based on how individuals are taught.

Accordingly, the adaptation of STEM courses to facilitate female learning may affect girls’ enthusiasm and perceived competence in STEM. Understanding the nature of biological and social influences on female selection of STEM careers and creating interventions to mitigate these factors are essential for our ability to keep up with other economies.


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Image via Gunnargren / Shutterstock.

Nisha Cooch, PhD

Nisha Cooch, PhD, is a Senior Contributor to Brain Blogger. She holds a PhD in neuroscience and is an expert in the neural basis of decision making. You can follow her on Twitter @NishaKCooch.
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