The Myth of the Male Math Brain

“Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls because they are better at mathematics. They do so, at least in part, because they think they are better.” Shelley Correll, Professor of Sociology, Stanford University.

An old myth maintains that boys are better at math, and girls are better in verbal skills. But research shows no cognitive biological differences between men and women in math, so the idea of a male “math brain” is not true. Some researchers have called this one of the most self-destructive misconceptions in America today.

The fact is that nearly everyone can learn high of math levels. Girls and boys score virtually the same in math in fourth and eighth grades in the U.S., and eighth-grade girls actually outperform boys by five points in technology and engineering.

A gendered math gap does exist in some elementary school — but it is evident only among boys from higher-income and predominantly white families. In fact, girls score higher than boys in math in lower-income, predominantly Black areas (representing around one-quarter of school districts), but their scores are still disproportionately low compared to those of white boys in high-income areas.

Students raise their hands in classroomDespite equal levels of ability among boys and girls, a math gap grows over time as girls are discouraged and tracked away from STEM subjects. By the time students reach college, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majorsfor instance, only around 21% of engineering majors are women and only around 19% of computer and information science majors are women. These professions then have major gender gaps — such as that only 16% of engineers are women, and nearly half of women in science fields leave or work part-time after having a child

  • Nationally, 4th grade boys outperformed girls in math scores by only three points, and by 8th grade the scores were the same for boys and girls. 8th grade girls outperformed boys by five points in technology and engineering in a 2018 assessment.
  •  In the United States, 59% of 4th graders and 66% of 8th graders do not achieve proficient levels in math.
  • Some researchers point out males outperform females on multiple choice exams in all fields, which can skew assessments and understanding of the STEM gender gap. There is also evidence that standardized tests are culturally skewed – where higher-income and white students perform the highest.
Implicit and Explicit Bias and Discouragement

Teachers often underestimate girls’ math abilities. These lower expectations and biases are estimated to contribute to around half of the gender achievement gap in math. Early education teachers with math anxiety may then pass their anxiety and gendered stereotypes onto their students, and some teachers have been shown to grade girls harder for the same work and assume girls needed to work harder to achieve at the same level as boys.

  • By grades 2 or 3, many girls lose confidence in math. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to say they are strong in math by second grade, before any performance differences are evident.
  • By ages 13 to 17, only 11% of girls say they plan to pursue a STEM career, compared to 35% of boys (according to a survey by Junior Achievement).
  • By grade 8, girls are less likely than boys to have taken classes in engineering (15% vs. 23%).
  • By middle school, more than 90% of girls rate themselves as creative, and 72% say they want careers that will have a positive impact on the world. However, only 37% of them rate STEM jobs as being creative or having a positive impact on the world.
  • And in middle school, 31% of girls say jobs requiring coding are “not for them” — growing to 40% by high school and 58% by college.
  • According to some studies, 74% of working women in computing were exposed to computing in middle school – and nearly 70% of growth in the computing pipeline would come from changing the path for the youngest girls.
  • By grade 12, girls are less likely than boys to have taken any classes in computer science (18% vs. 27%). Girls account for only 27% of students taking the AP computer science exam.

Parents from high-income families may be more likely to reinforce the belief that boys are more capable and interested in math and science, investing in opportunities for their sons more than their daughters.

Math and students of color

Girls and women of color are even more likely to be steered away from studying math, with additional lower teacher and adult expectations and discrimination, early and ongoing level tracking in schools, less access to high-quality math instruction, traditional versus engaging or active instruction, fewer opportunities for advanced courses and even fewer role models or what a number of studies have characterized as virtual invisibility in math fields.

  • Grade 4 students from lower-income families score 24 points lower and grade 8 students from lower-income families score 29 points lower than students from higher-income families on national math assessments. Latinx and Black student scores are often 20 to 30 points lower than for white students.
  • Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in high school math and physics courses, and only 65% of Black students enrolled in 8th grade algebra pass the course at that time, which is a gateway marker for future math and science studies and careers, and 20% of Black students attend high schools where calculus is not available.