Girls Avoiding STEM – What Neural Sex Differences Can and Cannot Tell Usby Nisha Cooch, PhD | June 15, 2014
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.
Amdam GV, Csondes A, Fondrk MK, & Page RE Jr (2006). Complex social behaviour derived from maternal reproductive traits. Nature, 439 (7072), 76-8 PMID: 16397498
Bell, E., Willson, M., Wilman, A., Dave, S., & Silverstone, P. (2006). Males and females differ in brain activation during cognitive tasks NeuroImage, 30 (2), 529-538 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.09.049
Cahill L (2003). Sex- and hemisphere-related influences on the neurobiology of emotionally influenced memory. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 27 (8), 1235-41 PMID: 14659478
Connellan, J., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Batki, A., & Ahluwalia, J. (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception Infant Behavior and Development, 23 (1), 113-118 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(00)00032-1
Frings L, Wagner K, Unterrainer J, Spreer J, Halsband U, & Schulze-Bonhage A (2006). Gender-related differences in lateralization of hippocampal activation and cognitive strategy. Neuroreport, 17 (4), 417-21 PMID: 16514369
Hedges LV, & Nowell A (1995). Sex differences in mental test scores, variability, and numbers of high-scoring individuals. Science (New York, N.Y.), 269 (5220), 41-5 PMID: 7604277
Huhman, H R. (2012). STEM fields and the gender gap: Where are the women? Forbes.
Jaušovec N (2012). Sex differences in event-related potential components during the solution of complex mental rotation tasks. Neuroreport, 23 (6), 360-3 PMID: 22357397
Kenney-Benson GA, Pomerantz EM, Ryan AM, & Patrick H (2006). Sex differences in math performance: The role of children’s approach to schoolwork. Developmental psychology, 42 (1), 11-26 PMID: 16420115
Kimball, M. (1989). A new perspective on women’s math achievement. Psychological Bulletin, 105 (2), 198-214 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.105.2.198
Lachance JA, & Mazzocco MM (2006). A longitudinal analysis of sex differences in math and spatial skills in primary school age children. Learning and individual differences, 16 (3), 195-216 PMID: 20463851
Lindberg SM, Hyde JS, Petersen JL, & Linn MC (2010). New trends in gender and mathematics performance: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 136 (6), 1123-35 PMID: 21038941
Linn MC, & Petersen AC (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: a meta-analysis. Child development, 56 (6), 1479-98 PMID: 4075870
Pollack, E. (2013). Why are there still so few women in science? New York Times.
Shaywitz, B., Shaywltz, S., Pugh, K., Constable, R., Skudlarski, P., Fulbright, R., Bronen, R., Fletcher, J., Shankweiler, D., Katz, L., & Gore, J. (1995). Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language Nature, 373 (6515), 607-609 DOI: 10.1038/373607a0
Swanson, W H. (2014). Meeting the STEM challenge. US News
Opioids for Chronic Pain – An Interview with Dr. Webster, Pain Guru
Think Your Way to Health
Communicating with ALS One Blink at a Time
Feeling Sleepy? Take an App!
Stephen Hawking turns 73 today, defeating the odds of a daunting diagnosis by over half a century. The famous theoretical physicist popularized modern... READ MORE →
Do not miss out ever again. Subscribe to get our newsletter delivered to your inbox a few times a month.
Like what you read? Give to Brain Blogger sponsored by GNIF with a tax-deductible donation.Make A Donation