One of the most formative chapters of my life started the month I arrived slightly more than a mile from the equator, high in the “Mountains of the Moon” in what was then Zaire.
As a well-educated “mzungu,” I honestly thought that my outsider status somewhat protected me from the local beliefs about men and women, their roles and interactions.
But the longer I lived in what is now the North Kivu, the more I realized that within the local context I was no different than anyone else’s wife—maybe just less valuable given that, according to a local elder, I wouldn’t even command a single goat as a bride price. (Apparently, I lacked the skills a woman should have: tending garden, selling goods at market, reproducing prolifically and obeying a husband.)
As time went on, I pondered more deeply the importance of gender—and the forces underlying it. But I remained convinced and constant: men and women are the same and we can accomplish the same.
This had to be so because we all have the same amazing brains, and so the abilities of girls and boys, women and men must be equivalent.
Upon leaving Zaire in December, 1983, I began my graduate studies on girls’ education and gender issues writ large. My studies convinced me more and more that environmental factors and cultural norms and expectations explain the differences between how boys and girls experience life, perform in school and work and relate to each other.
These norms and expectations played out in the classrooms I observed. For example, even teachers—men and women—who talked about gender equity punished boys who misbehaved by assigning them chores that girls had to do routinely: cleaning the latrines and boards, carrying the water to the school, and sweeping the floors.
Clearly the gendered stereotypes used to limit girls and women were based in this kind of cultural and societal construct, and not in biology, I thought.
I was wrong.
As I continued to study how we learn, I came across studies that mapped children’s brain functions as they performed cognitive tasks. To my total amazement, these and other findings revealed biological differences in the ways male and female brains are and how they function—some even apparent in the womb before birth.
For example, Sheri Berenbaum, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University, writes that MRI studies show that some areas grow faster in female brains while others grow faster in male brains. So, the brains of boys and girls who are the same age can be at different developmental stages. Eventually, though, they catch up with each other.
She writes that brain size also varies. Male brains grow slightly larger than female brains, although the significance of this isn’t clear. Some research has shown that in girls, the region of the brain that helps control language and emotion – called the caudate – tends to be larger.
Some studies also indicate that part of the larger corpus callosum, which connects the two sides of the brain, is larger in girls than in boys. Some scientists think this could mean that girls tend to use both the left and right sides to solve problems.
Dr. Gregory Jantz writes in Psychology Today that males and females have a “profound brain-processing difference” caused by their amounts of gray and white matter, translating into very different abilities to multi-task versus focus deeply.
He says different body-brain connections affect the ways boys and girls process neurochemicals, affecting behavior like how long they can sit still and pay attention in class, or how impulsive or aggressive they are.
Girls have a larger hippocampus and a greater density of neural connections to it than boys do, allowing them to catalogue more sensory and emotive information than boys.
A major difference Jantz points out is that the brains of boys and girls have a different division of labor: girls have a verbal center in both hemispheres of the brain, boys just the left, making girls more likely to use words when discussing or describing things.
“Scientists have discovered approximately 100 gender differences in the brain, and the importance of these differences cannot be overstated,” Jantz writes.
All of these studies point to the same thing: The brains of boys and girls are indeed different.
But learning outcomes don’t have to be.
Educators can use varying methodologies to address the differences in how boys and girls process information, create word, memory and sensory connections and relate to teachers and classmates.
Although we are all different in so many ways—more than I initially thought, it turns out—we are still more alike than we are different regardless of our gender… or race, religion, or language. I still believe boys and girls can achieve the same things, though their paths will certainly be different.
In education, at least, we just have to provide different learning modalities based on individual needs, and commit to believing everyone has the right to different but equal learning opportunities.