The Big Brain Hypothesis

Design by Emma Lehman

Image description: Human brains float on a warm-toned background along with blurred math equations. Brains and equations have a soft white glow, the image is blurred and hazy.

*Note: most studies refer to differences in mathematical ability by ‘gender’ and not sex. However, the claim really is that people born with two X chromosomes are biologically less able to succeed at complex mathematical issues. 

Of all the questions in life I thought I would ask, never once did I consider I’d give any significant thought to questions of whether or not women are capable of succeeding in an area of academics. But, as I sat through psychology classes and learnt just how many times this question had been suggested and tested in history; I was as bewildered as I was intrigued. And so, here I am, asking the question: can girls really do math?

Historically, men have been portrayed as the very architects of mathematics. Be it Gauss, Euler or Ramanujan, the names of male mathematicians top (and conclude) nearly every list in nearly every book, article and mind. However, there is a gross misrepresentation of the continued contributions of women. When Sofia Kovalevskaya became the first female academic in the field in the late 19th century, the world, particularly men, had a lot of opinions. When pioneering mathematicians such as Mary Somerville and Hertha Ayrton began to be known in the field, they weren’t permitted to integrate into the larger world of mathematics as fellows, or professors, even as late as into the early 20th century. Discrimination was not only restrictive but openly so. A quote taken from a letter written by Sofia Kovalevskaya outlines the nauseating misogyny she, and so many others, faced: 

“I have received from your sister, as a Christmas present, an article by Strindberg (a prominent figure in the 19th Century), in which he proves as decidedly as two and two make four, what a monstrosity is a woman who is a professor of mathematics, and how unnecessary, injurious, and out of place she is.”

Sofia Kovalevskaya

The most common justification for this discrimination was the suggestion that women innately were less capable of doing math. In 1887, Georges Romanes, a physiologist and psychologist claimed this was true because girls had ‘smaller brains’. Eleanor Maccoby, in the late 20th century, stated gender differences in mathematics performance are significant and established. This was only 50 years ago. Then, as research techniques and methodology improved, the results from studies of differences in mathematical ability between sexes, saw a remarkable shift. 

A 2010 meta-analysis by the APA that analyzed data from 242 published studies between 1990 and 2007 found that men and women performed at similar levels when their mathematical ability was tested. A 2019 study published in the science journal Nature analyzed gender similarities in mathematics in the brain during development using fMRIs found that the girls and boys had significantly similar neural functioning and engaged the same neural system during math development.

So, the question comes up- is the gender gap in mathematics closing or were earlier claims inaccurate? The gender gap in mathematics is closing but not because women are suddenly growing bigger brains. Rather, because girls across the world are benefiting from increases in accessibility to advanced mathematical training. This is unprecedented progress. But only if you look at how far we’ve come from not allowing women in schools, which should not be the scale against which we measure progress. Where we should look, rather, is how far we’ve yet to go.

However, to keep things interesting and to not completely discount researchers who suggest it, let’s say there are different approaches to learning between the genders. Meaning that one, men, use techniques better suited to understanding mathematics than women. This would still account for only small differences in mathematical ability between girls and boys. So why, then, are there only a number of female mathematicians we learn about, are taught by or even see in class? Why is half the population so significantly underrepresented in such a core area of academia? A large number of studies, whether or not they agree that girls biologically cannot do math as well as boys, agree that girls tend to have ‘less positive math attitudes’. This entails low levels of confidence and higher levels of anxiety. In a classic experiment by Spencer et al (1999), researchers found that making gender differences salient during a math test made women perform significantly worse than men. However, when the same test was administered without highlighting gender differences, women did equally as well as their male counterparts.They attributed this difference to the presence of a stereotype threat in the first condition. In the simplest of terms, when a girl and a boy are solving an identical mathematical problem with no difference in ability to do so successfully, the girl does worse because she is programmed to doubt herself and believe she is wrong –– because the world tells her ‘Girls can’t do math.

And, of course, there is a reason the issue persists even after all the research and all the ‘progress.’ It’s because there remain people in top positions of academia and government that believe and propagate the message that girls innately cannot do math. Don’t believe me? I’ll give you two proofs with one name: Lawrence Summers, ex-President of Harvard and advisor to President Clinton and Obama. Lawrence stated and stood by the position that women have a biological shortcoming when it comes to math and therefore face no real discrimination in the field. So, any discrimination they faced was because of their apparent inability to be competent in the field rather than other social factors. This high reaching belief has a profound impact on accessibility of advancements in mathematics between men and women. If policymakers and leaders in education, despite the conclusions of volumes of data that suggests otherwise, continue to believe that women have an inability to do math well, they’re not likely to support changes that narrow the gap between men and women in mathematics nor encourage the social change that must accompany such initiatives. 

Now, as terrifying as this finding is- that society can make us doubt ourselves just because they cannot get over their patriarchal stereotypes- it is also revealing of a solution. If the outside can make us feel less confident, it can also be used to achieve the opposite –– build confidence.

So what can we do? 

If a woman believes she is innately destined to be worse than men at mathematics, encourage her to think again. Chances are social perception and not inability cause such feelings of anxiety. If you are a teacher, engage your female students in higher level courses in mathematics. Expose them to role models in the field like Shakuntala Devi or Emmy Noether. It is difficult to be what you can’t see, and representation fosters acceptance of female figures in fields society doesn’t like to place us in. If you work for a publication, use your platform to highlight women, especially underrepresented minorities, in STEM so the world starts to see them in all their glory. 

I think it was a lot harder to convince the world that half of it was physiologically less capable of excelling at a subject than it will be to use facts to prove this is nothing but a misogynistic play at restricting women and making them doubt their abilities. I’ve thought long and hard, educated myself and come to thdis conclusion that I hope I can use to contribute to the social change I wish to realize: Girls Can Do Math. You better believe it.

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