Getting Serious About Girls and STEM

Russ Davis

Girls and women are entering STEM fields in large numbers.  As a father of two grown daughters, I feel both happiness and relief when I see this sea change.  Especially in the S (Science) part of the STEM/STEAM acronym, females have caught up to and are, in some schools, surpassing male participation.  For instance, there are now more women entering medical school than men, and women are engaging in biology-centered careers at higher numbers than men.

At the same time, mainly in the T, E, and M parts of STEM (Technology, Engineering, Math), college classrooms and workplaces are still predominantly male.  It isn’t unusual for there to be two young women and fifteen young men in an engineering classroom, for instance; similarly, in an industrial/mechanical engineering workplace, and in many high tech or coding workplaces, the ratio of women to men is often 1 to 5.

Are the discrepancies all about sexism and gender discrimination? I will argue in this multi-part blog series that they are not. Related to this question: will we ever or should we see 50/50% male/female ratios in classrooms and workplaces in these TEM fields? I will argue that we will likely not see 50/50 in many of the fields just as we will likely not see 50% male kindergarten teachers, but we can definitely increase the number of females in TEM fields—if we will get serious about looking into the brains of girls and boys.

My research in both high tech and engineering corporations as well as sex differences in brain development has revealed and confirmed a significant spatial vs. verbal brain development difference between female and male brains.  If we are serious about getting more girls and women to enter and remain in coding and engineering fields, we must account for this male/female brain difference from birth onward. Not only account for it: we must raise, teach, and mentor girls toward more spatial intelligence development throughout the child-to-adult life-span than we do.

In this Part I blog, I’ll give analysis and then strategies that will clarify this statement. I will also argue that if we don’t do this—if we keep insisting girls and women stay out of T, E, and M fields because of male-dominated gender bias–we may be able to get more girls and women to enter college and then the TEM fields at the outset through popular education, but we won’t find these women staying in those fields or jobs; and we won’t increase the number of girls and women who “love math” and “love engineering,” despite that this “love” is key to female success in T and E.

Key to all of this is the human brain—specifically, the female brain.  When Gail and I were raising our daughters, we often heard, “Dad, I hate math,” “Mom, math makes no sense,” “Math is a waste of time,” “It’s too hard.”  Recently I was speaking in Ohio about this topic and a number of moms came up to me after the talk to share stories. One mom said, “I have a daughter in engineering school and she’s the only female in her classroom!  The only one!” Another said, “I did everything to get my daughter to love math—tutors, online resources, female role models—but she just never really got math. Now that you’ve shown me what’s going on in the female brain, it makes sense!  I wish I had known this twenty years ago.  We could have done more.”

One of the most important brain differences between females and males that affects “love of math” involves the spatial-verbal difference.

Greater Verbal-Emotive Intelligence Can Mitigate Spatial-Quantitative Intelligence

Neuroscientists such as Diane Halpern, Ruben and Raquel Gur, Camilla Benbow, David Geary, and Louann Brizendine have verified female-brain advantages in verbal-emotive intelligence.

From the outset, the female brain devotes more brain centers to word production (reading, writing, speaking) than does the male.  For instance, males are about 1.5 years behind females in word production, full sentence use, and vocabulary, and in most of the 72 industrialized countries that give the same test (PISA) at 15 years old, females are ahead of males in literacy.

One reason:  While girls produce words on both sides of the brain, most boys produce words mainly on the left side, which limits word production in comparison, and also affects the “words to feelings” ratios of boys and girls. This translates in brain-talk to: “verbal-emotive intelligence.”  Both boys and girls can talk about feelings and anything else they want to talk about, but girls have more connectivity between more word centers and more sensorial, emotive, and memory centers in the brain, making them more likely to spend more of their day connecting words to life.

This means they may sacrifice other brain centers, like spatial ones that are essential for math-love and engineering.  In fact, the same scientists have found, the male brain on average produces more visuospatial intelligence, including “the ability to maintain a visual image while simultaneously deciding what it would look like if it were viewed from another perspective, moved to another location, moved through space at various speeds, or physically altered in some way.”  This “visuospatial” intelligence happens in certain parts of the brain, mainly on the right side.

This is one reason that male brains, on average, have an advantage in instinctive quantitative processing (math), though this advantage should be approached with some subtlety because girls and women test out similar to boys and men in “numerical processing” which is the kind of processing that would be used in bookkeeping and accounting (fields into which females are now moving quite rapidly).  The primary male advantage is actually in spatial processing and in quantitative processing that occurs at the highest levels of testing (genius levels or just below that).

Why?  In both quantitative and spatial processing, the male brain localizes more activity for these quantitative functions in brain-areas in which the female brain has not developed its quantitative or visuospatial centers, but instead had built word centers.  The Inferior Parietal Lobule is an example—this part of the brain is more active in males, in general, than females, and handles a great deal of spatial and math acuity.

As Ruben Gur has put it, “Some of the parts of the brain women would need for these functions are used up with verbal centers.”  Louann Brizendine has called this a reality of the female brain in her books The Female Brain and The Male Brain. For a further elaboration on this, reference this study:  Halpern, Gur, Benbow, et.al., “The Truth About Sex Differences in Mathematics and Science,” which appears in Psychological Science, 2007, in print and online.

But What About Neuro-Plasticity?

Whenever scientists or practitioners point out hard-wired brain differences, some people respond:  “But what about neuro-plasticity?” It’s a great question to ask. In fact, the strategies I’ll provide in this blog and the next depend on our understanding that neuro-plasticity is a real phenomenon.  Our brains are, in some ways, neuro-plastic. Because the human brain has billions of neurons, we don’t have to think of it as “finite.” We can think of its potential as endless.

When, for instance, our memory centers don’t feel to us like they are working well enough for us to function in our environment, we can commit to doing Sudoku an hour a day so that we can develop new cells in our hippocampus, our memory center, thus improving our memory system.  Similarly, when we want to learn a new language in a new country or culture, we study the new language and our brains create connections between cells in Broca’s and Wiernecke’s areas that reflect our new language learning.

Neuro-plasticity is a crucial part of modern brain science and it is true that a smart humanity is one that believes the potential of each brain is endless.  But . . . and this is a big “but”. . . this idealism doesn’t mean every brain is plastic in the way we might imagine it should be. For each brain function we improve, we may mitigate another function.

This is the case with verbal functioning, spatial functioning, and their sibling, quantitative functioning.  If a brain is great at one or more things it may not be as great at some other things because the human brain, to some extent, specializes.  If a brain is highly verbal-emotive, it may not be as quantitative or visuospatial. If it is highly quantitative or visuospatial, it might not be as highly verbal-emotive.

While approximately 1 in 5-7 people are “exceptions,” as scientists like Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University and Daniel Amen have noted, our brains do specialize to such an extent that, by college age, we can start seeing quite well who we are.  By our mid-to-late-twenties, when myelination and other brain development completes, we will see even more clearly who we can become—and not become.

Studying the Research

Will we “forgive” this aspect of natural life, or will we despise it?  Before we decide, let’s study it. Scientists have done just that, by digging deeply into K – 12, college admissions, and graduate admissions testing.

In NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test scores, “females scored higher, on average, in all racial or ethnic groups and across all ages, in reading, writing and civics.”  But males scored higher in quantitative areas. This continued through the SATs, GREs, and GMAT tests used for admission to business school in which “males score higher across all racial/ethnic groups, with the largest differences in quantitative areas.”

Digging even deeper, researchers found, “there were no sex differences for GRE math problems when solutions required multiple algorithmic steps (i.e. differences were not due to the ability to hold information in working memory), but the usual male advantage was found with math problems that had multiple possible solution paths.”  The more completely the quantitative or spatial task relied on spatial or quantitative multi-tasking, the more advantage the male brain tended to have; the more completely the task relies on other kinds of multi-tasking, the more advantageous was the female brain.

This is a clue to something we must recognize if we are going to improve T, E, and M education for girls.  Girls and women have caught up statistically with men in many of the S fields (biology, research biology, pharmacology, medicine), and in grades in school, girls are statistically surpassing boys in many states in M classes–often because boys are failing out of schools in general compared to girls and also because of girls’ hard work on homework and extra credit. But…

The visuo-spatial advantage in the male brain, as well as memory-processing differences in the female and male brain, improve male scores on certain kinds of tests that revolve around spatial multi-tasking.  This kind of multi-tasking is the only kind of multi-tasking males show more proclivity for than females, on average. In other kinds of multi-tasking, including verbal and verbal-emotive, females do better.

In other words, when the multi-tasking is spatial (happening in one or two gray-matter areas of the brain), males test better, but when the multi-tasking involves moving signals throughout the brain, females do better.  Males tend to specialize brain activity into a few brain-centers while females tend to spread brain-activity throughout the brain.

The Amazing White Matter Brain

This idea of “specializing” brain activity into certain areas of the brain is a crucial one.  A lot of the kind of brain activity one needs to do well in certain spatial and math tasks is “gray matter focus.”  The variable multi-tasking of the female brain utilizes more “white matter activity.” Gray matter occurs in “splotches” in the brain—localized areas of brain activity.  White matter activity occurs among the brain’s myelin, so it spreads throughout the brain.

This is a brain difference you can test out in your home, school, and community.

Study who in your family tends to organize disparate details from various areas of focus better (on average).  You will see more females with this advantage, just as you see more women in complex multi-tasking jobs. Even as early as 7 or 9 years old, it becomes clear that female brains organize their many different folders for school more assiduously than males (on average); that they care more about the ten different colored tabs for each class or extracurricular subject; that they tend to show more organization in homework than males, keep their rooms more organized . . . the list is endless.  There are always exceptions, but the rule is lived out by everyone raising children.

Now dive into the other kind of multi-tasking: give a group of 10-year-old boys and girls a set of light bowling pins and ask them to learn how to juggle.  The males will tend, on average, to more quickly and more completely master this physical-spatial juggling task than the females. Meanwhile, if you ask these same children to keep five or more emotive details in their working memory, the girls will tend to do better than the boys, on average.  You will be seeing, among other things, a difference between white matter activity and gray matter activity as you study the various kinds of multi-tasking.

University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Ruben Gur was one of the first to use PET scans to discover that while girls and women have more grey matter than males, they rely more on white matter activity for tasks and relationships.  Cambridge neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen joined Gur in the 1990s in exploring this difference, discovering that the female brain is generally more committed than the male to a variety of verbal-emotive functioning, including empathizing with others first and putting off certain kinds of systemic/logic-analysis in favor of this functioning.

In other words, Baron-Cohen discovered that the female brain may put off doing abstract/spatial/quantitative thinking so that it can account for feelings and facial and social cues.  This has become known by many names: the “feeling” vs. “logic” difference, “circular” vs. “linear” thinking difference, “systems” vs. “empathy” difference, and “spatial” vs. “relational/emotive” difference.

In 2005, University of California-Irvine neuroscientist Richard Haier used fMRI scans to reveal exact numbers on white matter/gray matter activity differences.  Haier discovered that, “In general, men have approximately 6.5 times the amount of gray matter related to general intelligence than women, and women have nearly 10 times the amount of white matter related to intelligence than men. Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, and white matter represents the networking of – or connections between – these processing centers. “

Rex Jung, a University of New Mexico neuropsychologist, and co-author of the study, said, “this may help to explain why men tend to excel in tasks requiring more local processing (like mathematics), while women tend to excel at integrating and assimilating information from distributed gray-matter regions in the brain, such as required for language facility. These two very different neurological pathways and activity centers, however, result in equivalent overall performance on broad measures of cognitive ability, such as those found on intelligence tests.”

This point is crucial.  Brain difference research does not show women or men as more intelligent overall.  Rather, as Haier confirmed, “These findings suggest that human evolution has created two different types of brains designed for equally intelligent behavior.”  The issue is not intelligence, but the internal choices and paths of attentiveness the brains make as people live out their lives. For us in the STEM area, the question is:  what will boys and girls tend to spend their brain power on?

To look at gray matter development in a brain, take some time on Google to read results from autopsies of Albert Einstein’s brain.  Researchers discovered a very dense and well-developed visuo-spatial gray matter area in the parietal lobe. His male genius brain was capable of spatial and theoretical multi-tasking regarding quantum physics and astronomy at the highest levels in part because his brain concentrated and localized brain activity into the areas of his brain that he needed most for this task.

The “words-for-feelings” difference we discussed earlier is a case of “spreading out activity in the female brain.”  When I give lectures on the female and male brain, I show PET, fMRI, and SPECT scans of those brains. Audiences often feel what I felt when I first saw the scans – a sense of “Wow” at how differently the female and male brains process white matter and gray matter activity for language use.  Unlike Einstein’s brain which processed astronomy and physics in, mainly, one or two gray matter areas, when the female brain is processing words, it does so, in general, throughout the brain, moving the signaling to various word centers via white matter activity.

Like anything else I say or write, you can study all this in your own life.

Watch how girls will often connect dots in the brain that boys won’t, especially regarding words, memories, and relationships.  Men might feel immense delight climbing up a hierarchy, whereas for a woman, the intricacies of relational life can feel like a profound victory.

Goal-setting can feel different in a female and male brain, as can the development of purpose, meaning, and legacy.

The call to invent and build things, and the way people construct teams to build and invent can feel different in the male and female brain.

While you might instinctively try to help 12-year-old boys become better at multi-tasking their homework and school folders, you might realize that constant emotional multi-tasking is making your adolescent daughter anxious.  Perhaps you instinctively try to help her find just one or two areas of focus for a while, so that she can calm her brain down.

Indeed, clinical research shows that the anxious feeling of “burning the candle at both ends” grows, in large part, from the constant white matter activity in the female brain.  Daniel Amen, M.D., author of Unleash the Power of the Female Brain, recently wrote, “In the largest brain imaging study ever done, we compared the scans of 46,000 male and female brains using a study called SPECT, which looks at blood flow and activity patterns. Out of 80 areas tested, females were significantly more active in 70, which just explained my whole life – I have 5 sisters, 3 daughters and 14 nieces. These differences help us understand some of the unique strengths and vulnerabilities of the female brain and give us important clues on how to optimize it.”

A Baby Girl Experiment

In my lectures, along with brain scans, I often show a video clip of babies pulling on strings.  The clip reveals an experiment done famously at Rutgers University in the 1980s and then replicated in many other universities and countries.

Babies of six weeks to six months are placed in front of a screen with the ability to pull the string to receive the picture of a happy face.  The children love doing it, but when the researchers disconnect the apparatus so the string-pulling leads to no happy face at all (a blank screen, for instance), the girl and boy babies respond differently.

On average, the boy babies keep pulling the string longer than the girl babies while the girl babies start to cry more quickly than the boys.  The boy babies become upset too, but overall, the girl babies more quickly moved their brains into emotional reaction, from “I’m getting a good result pulling this string” to “I’m getting no result, and something has to change.”  Because they are not capable yet of talking this out with anyone, they do the next best thing – they cry. Their parents and other nurturers are right there to hug them and make them feel better. This experiment has been replicated throughout the world.

As they watch this DVD clip, many people in the audience chuckle or nod their heads.  It makes intuitive sense to them that girls’ brains are spreading out more internal information than boys’ brains about lots of things at once.  It also makes sense to them that boy babies are laser-focusing their internal cognition on the string-pulling and they will NOT be stopped – not until they finally realize they are powerless.

The Crossroads:  Strategies for Helping Girls Develop the Spatial Brain

Given the amount of scientific evidence available to us, I believe we stand at a crossroads in our ability to understand what is happening in the female brain.  I believe we can now say with near certainty, as Ruben Gur and Louann Brizendine have explained, that when the female brain emphasizes verbal activity it will tend to mitigate visuo-spatial and/or quantitative activity.  While, as we’ve noted, this fact does not mean girls aren’t good at math it does mean that we have to approach gender gaps in STEM differently than we currently are doing, and start very young so that we can try to exploit some of the neuro-plastic opportunities in the human brain by guiding girls toward more spatial-mechanical-quantitative brain-center development very early.  There are many reasons females don’t enter or remain in fields like mechanical engineering and coding, including pay/economics, work/life balance, relational vs. solitary work, freedom of choice, brain differences, and in some cases, gender bias against women or men:  while working on all the reasons as a culture, we mustn’t neglect the one that is connected to the development of the female brain.

Here are strategies you can use to make sure girls get the opportunity to develop their spatial intelligence from their earliest years of life.

*In preschool, try “girls only” day in the block corner, such that no boys play in the girls’ corner for various periods of time.  This will allow the girls to build things with blocks and Legos without a few very spatial and aggressive boys knocking down the girl-built edifices and structures.  Let the boys play on the other side of the room.

*Make sure girls spend daily time in natural settings.  Unless the conditions are too hot or too cold for basic health, keep this regimen going.  The natural world is a non-verbal world in which spatial intelligence can be built organically and instinctively in various gray matter areas of the brain.

*Foster spatial play.  Get on the floor and play with Legos, cars, even dolls that can move around.  Throw balls back and forth with girls and have them do so with other children.  Teach girls to juggle and let them get good at it, if they like that sport.

*Play lots of board games, do puzzles, do more work that is hands-on than on-screen.  Remember that pushing a button on an iPad creates a visual result, but it is not very kinesthetic or spatial at all, thus it is generally less useful for spatial intelligence than doing the task in the real world.

*Encourage girls to play Minecraft and similar games that involve edifice building and also engage the relational brain—this is something Minecraft can do quite well.

*Encourage girls to learn and play in single-sex groups and, even in elementary school, encourage single-sex classrooms in math and science so that girls can flourish in these tasks without high-math boys overwhelming them.

*Starting in middle school and then high school, begin teaching girls (and boys) about the male and female brain so they can become aware of who they are, who they are becoming, and what areas of brain development they want to try to improve.

*Keep girls in sports for as long as they enjoy and/or perform well in the sport.  This does not mean we need to push girls into the hyper-competitive soccer clubs or baseball leagues.  The idea is to keep them doing spatial tasks such as kicking, throwing, and catching balls and objects—tasks that help build up brain activity in the spatial centers of the brain.

More to Come

I hope you will be able to apply the theory and strategies in this blog right away in your classrooms, homes, and communities.  For much more on raising and educating girls, I hope you’ll get The Minds of Girls from amazon.com or any of your other book outlets.

In a few weeks, I’ll provide Part II of this series so that you can go even more deeply into the topic.  Taking “Girls and STEM” seriously means adjusting our culture toward the brain and somewhat away from its hyper-reliance on talking points about gender bias that don’t take into account male/female brain difference.

We do not need 50/50% females and males in every field to be a gender equal society, but we will never fully realize gender equity until we get back to the nature of the human brain and help girls love math more than they do, from the inside out.

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