Male and Female Brains Are Not the Same

Gender and hormones influence how the human brain develops.  Recognizing some of the
differences between the male and female brain can help us to understand why teenage males
and females often have different learning styles and behavioral patterns.  The cortex is
composed of gray matter and white matter.  Gray matter is densely packed with cell bodies.
White matter consists of myelinated axons that form the connections between brain cells. 

The female brain has a higher proportion of gray matter while the male brain has a higher
proportion of white matter.  Having more gray matter may explain why young women are
usually more efficient in processing information, often have stronger verbal skills, and usually
excel at juggling several activities.  Having more white matter appears to help the male brain
transfer information throughout the brain.  This can enhance young men’s spatial skills, such as
navigation and solving math problems.  A person whose brain thinks spatially often needs more
space when learning; so many males may spread out their work assignments while their female
classmates may not.

There are several structures in the brain that grow differently in adolescent females and males.
The hippocampus helps to transfer new information to long-term memory.  The hippocampus
is sensitive to the female hormone, estrogen, and grows faster and larger in young women.
Scientists believe that a larger hippocampus may explain females’ strong social skills.  Females
often excel at sizing up social situations, being emotionally supportive, and coordinating
complex relationships.  The amygdala and the hypothalamus are sensitive to male sex hormones
and grow larger in young men.  Both of these structures are involved in the body’s response to
fear and danger.  Enjoying contact sports, having increased sexual desire, and being more
assertive are behaviors that make sense with the male growth spurt in the amygdala and
hypothalamus.  A busier, bigger amygdala may also explain why boys and young men need to
move around more while learning compared to girls and young women, who tend to have a
longer attention span that allows them to sit still and focus on one subject for longer periods of

In addition to these physiological differences, male and female brains mature at a different pace.
The female brain matures sooner than the male brain.  Youth serving professionals should
evaluate where each teen is, neuro-developmentally, as opposed to assessments based solely on
chronological age or grade level.

The following strategies can enhance teachers’ and youth serving professionals’ work with
adolescent males and females:

  • • Promote gender-specific enrichment activities, tailored to the individual teen’s interests.
  •   Create opportunities for separate-sex education by creating all male and all female
  •   teams or work groups to take advantage of gender-based learning differences.
  • • Provide ample opportunities for females and males to engage in activities centered on
  •   relationships. For example, volunteer and community service activities can help foster
  •   communication and promote a sense of connectedness.  Service learning is a major
  •   trend in schools where educational objectives are linked to community outreach.
  •   Service learning can provide youth with opportunities to develop leadership and skills in
  •   a wide range of settings.
  • • Recognize how gender may influence students’ classroom needs.  For example, males
  •   may need more tutoring in reading and writing; females may need tutoring in math.
  • • Be sure to promote physical activity among both males and females. Sports, exercise,
  •   and exploring the outdoors are just as important for healthy brain development as
  •   things that actively engage the mind, such as reading, math, and science.