For Girls in STEM, Belonging, Not Brain Structure, Makes the Difference

By Kelly, Stephanie | Techniques, October 2013 | Go to article overview

For Girls in STEM, Belonging, Not Brain Structure, Makes the Difference


Kelly, Stephanie, Techniques


Little real evidence is available to indicate that the brains of men and women are "hardwired" A differently, yet, perhaps due to lingering stereotypes, women remain underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

In her hook, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot writes, "What I found, after an exhaustive search, was surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

This appears to run contrary to common claims that women somehow are less adept at STEM, a conclusion that would seem to follow from their marked under-representation in university science and technology programs (See sidebar).

Eliot, who is a neuroscience professor, notes, "Only two facts have been reliably proven." The first is that boys brains are larger than girls'--"somewhere between 8 and 11 percent larger, depending on the study," which is a difference similar to gender differences in height and weight.

The second is the difference that shows tip around the onset of puberty: "Girls' brains finish growing about one to two years earlier than boys'," she writes. That also mirrors the differences in children's physical growth--girls enter puberty a year or two before boys do.

So, according to Eliot, "the reality, judging by current research, is that the brains of boys and girls are more similar than their well-described behavioral differences would indicate."

Linda Billings, director of science communication at the Center for Integrative STEM Education at the National Institute of Aerospace, is similarly skeptical of neuroscientific theories that male and female brains are built differently.

"Based on my readings of secondary literature and 60-plus years of observation and experience, I lean hard toward thinking that male-female differences in cognitive ability and style [are] primarily the product of socialization--that is, learned," she says.

Billings, who volunteers as a "scientist in the classroom" with second and fourth graders, says she observes "noticeable gender-based differences in social behavior but no noticeable gender-based differences in cognitive ability or style."

"I do see differences in cognitive ability and style from individual to individual, which is in line with the literature on the topic," she says.

Helping Girls Find a Sense of Belonging

Both science and women lose when stereotypes "serve as unnecessary gatekeepers" to educational pursuits, writes Cordelia Fine in the book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Differences. She points to work by psychologist Catherine Good and others that shows that "a sense of belonging" is an important factor in women's intentions to continue in the field of math.

"This feeling of belonging, however, can be eroded by an environment that communicates that math ability is a fixed trait and not something that hard work can increase," especially in combination with the often accompanying message that women are naturally less talented than men, according to Fine.

Several nonprofit organizations and companies are devoting themselves in a number of ways to increasing girls' sense of belonging in STEM:

* The National Girls Collaborative Project (www.ngcproject.org) works with girl-serving STEM organizations across the United States, receiving funding from the National Science Foundation to reach high-need priority areas.

* NASA (www.nasa.gov), through Women@NASA, offers middle-school girls one-on-one mentoring from women working at the agency.

* The Girl Scouts of the USA (www.girlscouts.org) and Mocha Moms, Inc., (www.mochamoms.org) a national support network for mothers of color, partner to provide mentorship and adult volunteer support for girls' STEM projects and activities.

* Corporations such as Cisco (www.cisco.com), Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) and Intel (www. …

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