Neuroscience versus culture
While the research found boys to be more developmentally vulnerable than girls across the board, the difference was greatest for emotional maturity.
Dr Michael Nagel, an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of the Sunshine Coast explains that at conception the brain of every child starts off the same, but during the first trimester, with the introduction of additional male hormones triggered by a boy’s Y chromosome, this is when the brains of boys and girls start developing differently.
He explains that the brains of boys are hit with testosterone which is linked to inattentiveness, impulsivity, physicality and movement.
Testosterone can impact on serotonin which is primarily linked to processing emotions and acts as a calming mechanism.
For girls however, Dr Nagel explains that studies have shown that the female brain appears to be coded to grow more quickly across the hemispheres than boys, with the left hemisphere being slightly larger than the right, giving them the edge on comprehending and processing language.
“Girls will talk more and with greater fluency early in life and such differences are also due to the fact that the rates of maturation of the brain’s hemispheres are different between girls and boys,” he explains.
“Moreover, studies beyond those focusing on the brain tell us that females, as compared to males, typically have higher verbal IQs, greater proficiency in a range of language related tasks and abilities as well as superior verbal fluency.
“In practical terms, what all of this means is that girls talk more and with greater fluency than boys and this capacity is intimately linked to a girl’s emotional skill set.
“Neuroscientists believe that because the female brain is not immersed in high levels of testosterone in the womb, a girl arrives in the world better at reading faces, hearing human vocal tones and empathising with others.”
As for culture, Dr Brinkman explains that this will also impact a child’s development.
“There is lots of research that shows that parents, unknowingly, will stereotype what a normal activity is in terms of boys versus girls and what those gendered expectations are considering the culture that they are from,” she says.
Dr Brinkman adds that research has found that parents will talk to girls more than they will talk to boys, even before the child starts to speak.
“There are some interesting studies where parents have been given little books to read with their children,” she explains.
“In the book, the illustration is of a child climbing a tree, but you can’t actually tell if the child is a boy or a girl.
“Depending on the educational level of the parents, which parent is reading the story and depending on the gender of the child they are reading to, you get very different ways of reading that book.
“Low educated parents, and particularly male low educated parents, are far more likely to assume the illustration is of a boy climbing a tree, reverting to the stereotype that boys climb trees.
“Whereas if you have an educated mother, they will talk about their own childhood and when they climbed trees.
“This definitely has an effect on how children see themselves and perceive the world they are being raised in.”
Should we be doing things differently?
Dr Brinkman explains that we shouldn’t necessarily shift our focus to boys just because girls are doing better.
“People are starting to suggest we shift our focus to boys in the early years, but also in school and this gets us into dangerous territory,” she says.
“We don’t want to see one gender over another being supported through the education system, but rather the idea that boys and girls need different support at different times depending on what their developmental skills are at the time.”
She adds that girls doing better, before and during school, has impacts beyond our current knowledge.
“Australia is getting better at being a gender equal society and with that the social structure has supported female’s education, so girls are advancing through education much better than they used to,” she says.
“Development is cumulative, so the developmental advantage of girls in education means more women are entering university than before, and more women are completing their first degree than before.
“That then has impacts for society as we now have an increasing portion of educated women becoming parents and it will be interesting to see what that means for those children and their future.”