• Question: I am a woman engineer and educator. I often hear people say that boys and girls (men and women)"think differently". For example we all know that 2+2=4 but how we get to that is different. I have to say that I've never observed that either personally or as an instructor. Are there any reputable studies on this topic?

    Asked by mica on 27 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Iroise Dumontheil

      Iroise Dumontheil answered on 27 Apr 2015:

      I think the general answer to this is that although in some domains differences can be observed between genders, these differences are very small in relation to the variability observed within each gender. The typical analogy is height, men on average are taller than women (e.g. in England men are 5 ft 10 in on average women 5 ft 5 (http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB13218/HSE2012-Ch10-Adult-BMI.pdf) , but not all men are taller than all women and there is a huge overlap in height.
      Another issue is that although some gender differences may have a biological origin (e.g. related to sex hormones, and their effect on brain maturation during puberty), a significant proportion differences may be related to culture (e.g. being told that women at bad at science and engineering).

      This recent paper reviews the science of cognitive sex differences:

    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 27 Apr 2015:

      I agree with Iroise’s answer and would like to add that there is a difference here between mind and brain. It is possible to have cognitive differences (in the mind) without them being due to physical differences in the brain. Probably both exist, although with the important caveat of “on average.” As Iroise rightly says, there is tremendous overlap.

      There is a lot made of gender differences between male and female brains and I, personally, think these are often over-emphasized. So there are clear hormone level differences and some relatively small structural differences (e.g. the fibre density of the corpus callosum) but it’s not at all clear to me how functionally important these are.

      Really broad statements like “women are more creative” or “better at language” while “boys are better at math” don’t appear to be very helpful or supported by the available data. My worry is that these ideas become iconic and self-fulfilling. That is, everyone “knows” that girls are more creative and boys are better at math so each group is subtly pushed in that direction (almost certainly unintentionally) and the children internalise these ideas themselves too. That’s the risk, to my mind.