Professor Gina Rippon said it was time to debunk the myth that gender differences are hard-wired into our brains.
In reality, there was no significant difference between the brains of a girl and boy, but experiences and even attitudes could change the “plastic” brain on a physical level, causing its wiring to alter.
It was this that led girls and boys from an early age to head in different directions, said Prof Rippon, from Aston University.
Boys were more likely to become scientists and engineers, and even when girls went into science, they mostly chose careers at the “softer” end of the subject, such as biology, psychology and sociology, rather than physics and maths.
Speaking ahead of this year’s British Science Festival next week, Prof Rippon said: “The brain doesn’t develop in a vacuum. What we now know is that the brain is much more affected by stereotypes and attitudes in the environment, and that doesn’t just change behaviour, it changes the brain.”
Last year, 5,000 boys in the UK completed Level 3 engineering apprenticeships, but only 40 girls, Prof Rippon pointed out.
Boys taking physics A level also vastly outnumbered girls.
But Prof Rippon insisted it was likely to be the result of their brains being altered by experience.
Boys are said to be naturally more spatially gifted.
“This goes back to ’toys for boys. From a very early age, boys have a lot more experience with manipulating objects.”
But if girls aged six to eight are given the tile-matching puzzle game Tetris, their brain wiring changes and their spatial ability improves, Prof Rippon said.
She added: “It’s quite clear that spatial cognition is very much involved with experience, whether or not you have experience of manipulating objects as opposed to just observing them.”