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Girls' and boys' brains: How different are they?

A close up look at the gender achievement gap, and why it matters.

By Connie Matthiessen

When my son was a toddler, his best friend, a girl, gave him a sparkling dancing Katrina doll for a birthday present. He'd apparently admired the doll at her house, but once he got it he never played with it – until the day I found him chasing his little brother around with the doll, which he'd managed to twist into the shape of a gun.

Boys will be boys? Proof that gender differences are hardwired? Not so fast. Like most parents, I have just as many tales illustrating the influence of nurture on my son's behavior. At preschool one day, as he was playing dress up with two girlfriends, he donned a scarlet tutu. Within a minute an older, cooler boy guffawed, "Boys don't wear dresses!" He never put on girls' clothes again.

In recent years, the age-old question of nature versus nurture has sprung up in neurobiology. Are boys' brains essentially different from girls' brains? Are there differences in how boys and girls learn?  If so, what are these differences, and how much do they matter?

This question has been at the center of a debate that has ping-ponged back and forth over the last couple of decades, and many of the "facts" that have filtered up into popular discourse are both unsubstantiated and untrue. It’s no wonder that many parents are confused about boys and girls and that most essential of organs: the human brain.

How did we get so muddled? The story is an intriguing one involving brain science, bestsellers, and a fair share of baloney.

Mars and Venus

Back in 1992, when John Gray published Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, he tapped into the public's tremendous appetite for information about sex differences. Mars vs. Venus is about the gulf between men and women — a chasm so immense, Gray insists, that males and females may as well be from different planets. The book was a dizzying success — Gray's website calls it "the most popular book of the decade" — and it continues to do well almost 20 years later, generating lucrative spinoffs including couples' seminars, product endorsements, and revamped versions of the original book (the most recent volume is titled Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice.)

Over the last decade, a number of books identifying essential differences in the male and female brain have had popular appeal. One of these books, The Female Brain by University of California, San Francisco neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, is a bestseller that has been published in 26 countries.

Brizendine stresses the differences between the brains of the two sexes, and exalts the female brain for, among other qualities, its, "tremendous unique aptitudes — outstanding verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind, and the ability to defuse conflict.”

Four years later, in her second book, Brizendine took a close-up look at the male brain, which she calls a "lean, mean problem-solving machine." As in her first book, The Male Brain focuses on brain differences to explain discrepancies in male/female behavior.

The Female Brain and other, similarly popular books marshal scientific studies to shore up generalizations about the male versus female brain – claims that girls are better at recognizing emotions, for example, or that boys are hardwired for aggression. Such generalizations are delicious fare for popular media and have been echoed in magazine articles and on websites (including an article formerly published here). As a result, these claims have filtered into the collective consciousness. It's common to hear parents and educators make generalizations about girls' and boys' brains, and the way the differences between them are reflected in behavior, learning, and development.

The only problem with these generalizations is that they aren't substantiated by the scientific evidence — or, at least, they aren't as true as the "sex difference evangelists" — as Slate calls Brizendine and others who share her approach — imply.

Girls' and boys' brains: Not so different afterall

Brizendine and the other sex difference evangelists are fond of the words "innate" and "hardwired," and employ them over and over in their work. Girls are innately more relational, for example, or boys are hardwired to be competitive.

 But neuroscientist Lise Eliot, who combed years of research on brain differences for her recent book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, found scant evidence of innate qualities or hard-wiring in the brains of girls or boys: "What I found, after an exhaustive search, was surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains," she writes.

In adult brains, according to Eliot, there are larger differences between males and females, but even in adults these differences are small. Eliot and many other brain scientists agree that, instead of saying men are from Mars, women are from Venus, it's more accurate to say that men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.

Nature and nurture

If the differences between the male and female brains are relatively modest, why are people so eager to believe the opposite?

Eliot points out that emphasizing differences is more compelling than the more humdrum reality. "Sex differences in the brain are sexy," she says.

It's true that gender differences make for good copy. Brizendine’s claim, for example, that women use 20,000 words a day while men use only 7,000, neatly fit well-worn stereotypes about chatty women and taciturn men. After the hardcover version of Brizendine's book came out, these claims were discredited — it turns out that men and women speak roughly the same number of words each day — and Brizendine took it out of subsequent editions of her book. But the truth received much less hype than the hyperbole.

Sexy or not, emphasizing the innate differences between the male and female brain discounts the latest brain science. The human brain continues to develop throughout life. The essential material we're born with changes every day based on what we’re exposed to. It’s not nature or nurture — it’s both.

"Simply put, your brain is what you do with it," Eliot writes.

Generalizations about inherent male or female skills can have a self-fulfilling effect, reinforcing stereotypes and expectations that prescribe the way girls and boys are taught. "Use it or lose it" is a common refrain when it comes to the brain — that is, if areas of the brain are not used, they wither, just like an unused muscle. If a math teacher has lower expectations for the girls in the class, he may not challenge them the same way he does his male students. Or if a parent doesn't expect a son to be empathic, she may send him messages that it’s acceptable to be selfish.

Eliot believes that the emphasis on brain differences by Brizendine and others has led to "a brand-new wave of stereotyping...The more we parents hear about hard-wiring and biological programming, the less we bother tempering our pink or blue fantasies, and start attributing every skill or defect to innate sex differences. Your son's a late talker? Don't worry, he's a boy. You daughter is struggling with math? Its okay, she's very artistic."

These kinds of assumptions and stereotypes have been shown to have a powerful negative effect, based on a phenomenon known as "stereotype threat," which is the net negative effect stereotypes often have on real academic outcomes.

In one study of how attitudes affect math achievement, for example, researchers tested two groups of undergraduate students of both sexes, all skilled math students. Before taking the test, one of the groups was informed that women usually didn't don't do as well on the test as men do. The women in the group not informed of this stereotype performed just as well as the men. The women informed of the negative assumption scored significantly lower than the men.

These days, gender stereotyping is arguably more damaging to boys than to girls, when it comes to academics.  "While parents of girls keep raising their expectations, parents of boys are doing just the opposite," according to Eliot. "We blame every lapse on boys' lack of maturity, or lesser verbal skills, or minimal self-control, and lower our goals for their achievement and love of learning."

Achievement gaps

Literacy and math are two areas where stereotypes about gender-based abilities are common. Girls mature earlier in general, and do consistently better than boys in reading- and writing-related skills through college, a reality that no doubt helps explain girls' higher school-achievement level overall. But scientists have found no evidence that this achievement gap has anything to do with the structure of the brain.

"Language and literacy are learned skills," Eliot points out in Pink Brain, Blue Brain. "Education, not biology, is both the cause and the answer to sex differences in reading skills."

On the other hand, boys score consistently higher than girls on math and science standardized tests, so it has been popularly assumed that boys are somehow born with more "math brain.” But math achievement gaps may have less to do with innate abilities than with cultural expectations. Researchers at the University of Washington found that by second grade, a majority of girls and boys hold the stereotype that "math is for boys."

Another study comparing girls' and boys' math achievement across nations  demonstrates that the math achievement gap isn't universal: Girls do better in math in countries with the greatest degree of gender equity. The fact that girls are beginning to catch up to boys in both math and science is further proof that these abilities are not innate.

What you can do 

Eliot offers a number of concrete suggestions for parents to help their children transcend gender stereotypes in learning and development. Boys should be encouraged to turn off the screen and read, for example, to help strengthen reading and verbal skills.  It's also important for parents and other adults to engage boys in diologue, and not let them get by with shrugs and grunts. Playing sports, chess, and building games can help girls improve spatial abilities. Boys should be encouraged to engage in caregiving activities — like babysitting or tutoring younger children, for example,  or spending time with elderly relatives or neighbors — to foster nurturing skills. Girls should be given a range of math and science opportunities, and encouraged to compete.

 There is still much we don't know about the human brain in general, and about male and female differences in particular. But the more we learn about the brain, the more complex and magnificent it seems -— and the greater the potential for every girl and boy to develop a limitless range of talents and passions. 

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"This article enlightens us on some of the facts and myths which relates to gender differences. It is written in a simple form which makes understanding easier. "
"My concern is that efforts, long underway, to encourage girls to perform well in math and science, and similar goals are beginning to be reflected in ignoring the boys. In my area, when looking at the wedding and engagement notices, in more that 3/4 of the cases, the bride has a degree or even an advanced degree, and her fiancee has none. We are now producing far more women college graduates than men. Is this good for our society? I fear not. "
"Well obviously there are differences between men and women/ boys and girls. Otherwise , men and women will not have opposite sexual preferences. And quite obviously, Use it or loose it is a principle that applies to brain. This , however, does not prove that boys are not naturally willing to use their math brains more than girls are and so and so In the end it is obvious that nurture can have a great impact. But that in NO WAY proves that we should go against people's natural tendencies. WE SHOULD NOT INTERFERE WITH PEOPLE's NATURAL DESIRES AND BEHAVIOUR. It is not our place to tell boys and girls to do this or that. Rather, we should observe and push them in a direction where they are interested. I am sure there are differences between boys and girls - if not in ability, then in their tendencies. "
"(directed to everyone) Stop trying to figure people out...every one is different. You cant use a couple examples to prove your observations. Some people are energetic, aggressive, shy, outgoing, cocky. Some are better at math, science, sports. Some may have a better vocabulary, and some may play instruments. In the end everyone has their own personality, character, and fortes. Theres millions of athletic, aggressive, outgoing girls. And there are millions of unathletic, dramatized, gossiping guys as well. I could go on. But my point is that its not that girls and guys are different...its peiople are different "
"I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I come from West Africa; throughout my schooling there (from elementary school to university), I never expected to be surpassed academically by a girl. The reason, girls were told by everyone that school was not for them, that their place was to grow up, get married, and start a family. Most girls believed this dogma, and we (boys) enforced it, well, more or less. As would be expected, girls performed very poorly compared to boys. Many years later, I was shocked when the student who placed first in my Master's degree course in the UK was a woman. "
"i think this is true "
"this is cool "
"Agree! "
"This is an article that accurately represents the cultural differences between genders. "
"This article is so refreshing.I always thought expectations cause girls to do worse at math in America.In other parts of the world boys and girls are equal in math so America has a long way to go in erasing these rediculous sterotypes or our society will be keeping half the population of of the fields most needed.Gurian like Gray believes in hardwired,he is merely the Gray of education.He has done such harm to our society that I believe he should be put out of business which can happen if people stop believing his nonsense so he fades away.Great article! "
"Well, as with any study, results can be skewed to say whatever you want. There are differences between males and females, just as there are commonalities. It's not good or bad, it just is. What I'd like to see is more males in the classroom to give more balance to the educational experience. There is a gender bias that comes through when schools are run by mostly women and kids are taught by mostly women and judging by the vast numbers of somewhat neutered males in our sociey, I think a bit more balance is in order. Did I just throw out a bunch of stereotypes? "
"I believe it is not so much a gender difference in brains but the actual physiological development of the senses. Eye and ear development are very different between the sexes. Perhaps it is this sensory input difference that causes the brain to develop differently. Thus we see it as a gender brain issue when it is really a sensory issue "
"In life, we need some knowledge of both Science and Humanaities areas. The most important thing is observing your child closely to understand his or her potential. Then, you help to nurture what they already have and give more nurturing to areas where they need help. However,it hurts when the teachers at school think that Girls' and Boys's brains act and react in different ways. Two Girls can think and act differently. Two Boys can think and act differently. One incident,in 7th Grade, my daughter's Math Teacher told my husband that she is weak in Math because she does not respond well in class. My husband, who is an engineer, said that if Math is not taught sequentially and steps does not make sense to a student, s/h will not respond. We followed my husban's instinct that she has an aptitude for Math and Thank God, she graduated in Electrical Engineer from an IVY!! We alwatys treated our children in the same way, and their potential bloomed in both Humanities and Science sub! jects. "
"While the scientists argue about how females & males learn from infancy on, the important information I gleaned from this article is that it continues to be extremely important for us adults to choose our words carefully when talking with our kids. Our words are highly influential to how kids interact in their worlds. Whether it's "boys don't wear dresses" or "girls are bad at math", our words matter. By using judgmental language, we limit our kids' opportunities to expand their visions of who they may become. "
"I don't believe that brains of boys and girls are hardwired while they are very young. I can't quote a direct source, but I recall reading that connections close when they are not used. That is the reason that children can learn languages faster then adults can. If you haven't learned any foreign language to the point of fluency prior to becoming and adult, your brain starts to get hardwired to tune out sounds that you don't need/use for your native language. You also learn to pronounce words based in your native language. For example, English (both American and the Queen's English) have 32 vowel sounds. Hawaiian, Japanese and most ot the Romance language except for Frech) have 5 vowel sounds. At least in Hawaiian and Japanese: a - as in the "a" in car - no exceptions e - as in the "e" in pet (noun/verb your choice) - no exceptions i - as in the "ee" in feet (plural of foot) o - as in the "o" in phone - no exceptions u - as in the "u" in flute - one exception in Japanese for extending the "o" sound, but normally romanized with an "oh" seen mainly in Japanese script (hiragana, katakana) - otherwise no exceptions. So the car/motorcycle company is Honda not Handa. It appalls me that the Honda USA president mispronounces his company's name. The "Ho" part is similar to what Santa says. Honda is the founder's name, Soichiro Honda, learn to pronounce it correctly. Incidentally there is a Japanese surname of Handa which is romanized with the "a" instead of the "o". So if you pronounce Honda as Handa you are mistaking different families. But what grates on my ears is the mispronunciation of the capital of the state of Hawaii. It is Honolulu, not Hanalulu. As in "Ho" what Santa says, "no" meaning negative of "yes"; most people get the "lulu" part. Just try to pronounce it correctly, but most irritating are the newscasters and politicians of Hawaii. Governor Abercrombie, Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu Carlisle, President Obama, Newscaster Lara Yamada have all been guilty of pronouncing it Hanalulu. Remember in Polynesian, Japanese, most Romance languages the "o" is the "o" in what Santa says: Ho, ho ho! I can forgive the people on the mainland for pronouncing Honolulu, as Hanalulu because no one taught them correctly. "
"Thank you for the excellent writing and research in this article. It is refreshing to read something so well-written, that debunks the myths that are long-lived but often incorrect. Keep up the good work, GreatSchools! "
"Good information! "
"don’t know that I agree with being ‘hardwired’ differently but I would default to Dr Sax and his insights into the differences between boys and girls saying more that each learns differently – he wouldn’t necessarily say that ‘boys have math brains’ but more that girls learn math differently than boys and both can be strong in math. The article seems to simplify the research too much…focus on scientific study of the brain vs the whole person. "
"I am of the belief that boys and girls learn the same things in different ways but they both have the capability to learn about anything that they put their minds to. I am female and I bought into the gender stereotyping at a nice young age and decided I would become a famous artist after high school. I excelled in school and was in the top 3% of my high school class. My good grades were more a result of extreme competiveness than great intelligence and this is what enabled me to go for the opposite vocation at the next step in my life. Life being what it is, I had to get a job right out of high school and my great artist dream went out the window (doesn't pay). My boyfriend was an engineer and made fantastic money at the time so I decided to become one too and I did. I could not grasp the concepts in the mainstream way - I had to teach myself - so I did. Was this because the engineering classes were taught with only a male learning style in mind at the time? (Most of the instructors were male). I still don't know the answer to that since I'm only one guinea pig). I believe girls and boys learn the same material in different ways, that they are both capable of learning just about anything they put their minds to and when we really do understand the way in which the brain uses information, the data will show that males and females are still taking in the information in in different ways - Ask any teacher or mother of boys and girls. "
"I find this comment very interesting "There are more variations across the board among females or among males than there are between the two sexes". Yes that is likely true in terms of total number of things which differ in personalities but yet there is a difference between men and women which is absolute. Men have no potential to have babies. (yes some women are infertile that is not relevant) I cannot help thinking that maybe there is something similar in the brains that perhaps there is more variations among the sexes and yet a profound difference between them that makes all nurture moot. Perhaps this is false but I think that is the feeling most people have about the issue and why they are drawn to the mars/Venus analogies more than north south Dakota ones. "
"I find it very interesting that articles seem to polarize schools of though as bad or good. It would be so refreshing to step away from all of that and put the research in to some context. I find articles useful when they present recent findings. I am guessing there is validity in both points...that there are gender differences in the brain...and if misrepresented can be used to promote stereotypes (good or bad). The research I am familiar with where PET/MRI/SPECT scans are used (Dr Daniel Amen) to show differences in blood flow in the brain during different tasks. The conversation after the scientific evidence on what that all means can vary. I implore parents to keep an open mind and not dismiss what could be going on for their boys and girls based on this article. It has been my experience that the current brain science research is moving us in a forward direction...taken out of context, anything can be misused. "
"Bottom line, whether it's nature or nurture, boys and girls are different. I focus on the lines like "differences between males and females" and "men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota." So there are differences, and as our children hit teenage, hormonal years, they do distract each other! So put them in classes of all boys, and all girls when ever possible. Not all girl schools, and all boy schools, they still need to learn to interact with each other! Just my two cents. "
"Has anyone taken the time to account for the fact that boys and male brains may be bigger than females, just taking into account their bigger size? Just a thought. "
"According to the experts, my son is my daughter and my daughter is my son. I am both a boy and a girl, and I am neither. My son never learned to drive, has none of the male skills he is supposed to be hardwired for, and at 39 and on disability, is not likely to acquire them. But he is a nice young man who is kind to animals of every description. My daughter earned a black belt at 12, was state fighting champion for 3 years, and was working on her 2nd degree until a severe injury at work forced her to stop. She can hook up a car stereo in 5 minutes, tell you what's wrong with your car, and prefers a truck to a family car. She has no fear of snakes beyond annoyance that they are in her space, and can spend a day working or helping her husband with his landscaping and in ten minutes look like she's going to a ball. Her son, age 7, has a fascination with dinosaurs since age 4, and wants to be a paleontologist. He can't catch a ball, but he can tell you that a daspletosaurus evolved into a tyrannosaurus rex. I don't believe in hard-wired or innate gender mental characteristics. "
"I'm a physics teacher in a Title I inner city school. A couple of years ago at a College Board Summer Institute for AP Physics I learned that many of the other physics teacher in the class segregated their lab teams by sex. The premise is that the boys tend to jump in and figure out how to do the lab while the girls read the directions and think about the problem. By the time the girls are ready to start working, the boys have already done the lab three times, because they got it wrong the firs two times. So I've been putting my students in boy groups and girl groups ever since then. Its working. It is true, that now the girls are doing a lot more lab work in my class. Cheers "
"I also used to believe there were innate differences, as most of my friends had children before me and regaled me with "boys will be boys" types of stories. Then I had a daughter whom I nutured to be/do whatever interested her. We had an opportunity to live abroad and I learned a lot about our culture during this time--one big difference is how we perceive and treat boys and girls. Until 3rd grade most of my daughter's best friends were boys because "they were more fun" (read: adventurous). When she was in kindergarten, I was at the home of her best boy friend, a fun, engaging boy who had, for example, taught my child how to climb up a rope in the playground and to jump safely from the top into the sand pit. Watching this boy at play seemed no different from watching most any boy play. But at his home, his family expected him to "behave properly," so he helped to serve the family's guests drinks and snacks and sat rather quietly with his younger sister and my daughter while the grown-ups chatted. I was shocked! Boys could sit quietly? But I found he was not the only one. What was the difference? His family, like the other similar boys' families, were all natives from India. These boys had been socialized that there was a time to play and be wild (or "fun" as my child would say), but when it was time to act properly--and these boys were more than capable--they did. It was EXPECTED of them. Now when my friends say something about their young sons acting "like boys" I usually say something to the effect, "That's because you don't expect them to act any better and children are amazingly good at living up to our expectations." I also think a lot of this socialization by sex starts WAY before school. We buy girls and boys different toys, different clothes (have you ever seen anyone say to their boy, "Oh, look at this pretty shirt Grandma bought you"?), and even play with them differently: we cuddle and coo to girls and toss baby boys in the air. Again, the differences in American culture jumped out at me when we returned to the states. My first gender shock was going into the Toys R Us. The toys were so clearly divided by sex: not only in their own aisles, but boys' toys were all black, silver, red and blue. The girls' were all purple, pink and white. There were virtually no "kid" toys. In contrast, the European and Asian toys stores were riots of colors, with no clear distinctions as to which toys belonged to which gender. My daughter loved blue and wanted a blue bike. But there were none. Only pink and purple with big white tires. One commenter above talked about the differences in her 5th graders--of course! They've been treated differently and rewarded for these "sex differences" behaviors for more than 10 years now. "
"Great article...I teach 2nd grade and taught Kindergarten for 6 years before 2nd. I have seen these stereotypes in children and families. It is also a widely held belief in schools. Sadly, it lead to a negative self-fulfilling phrophecy for children. Teachers CAN make such a positive difference in changing these beliefs and giving BOTH genders possitive modeling to improve learning across their life-span. "
"I'm a man, and back at school, I was much better than many girls at English and Art, and I struggled behind many girls in Science. When one kid at our school was extremely sick, I sent a get well card and chocolate, and I caught a group of girls laughing about it during class. Technically, boys are boys, but that doesn't mean they're the same. "
""I think this article is great food for thought. I have encouraged my daughter significantly in math and science areas. It has brought to my attention that I should encourage my son as much in language and writing development. I think if there is a cultural bias or real physiological difference that each sex should be encouraged in that area where society or the pysiological difference would hinder them" "