Though general intelligence is about the same for males and females, studies consistently find that overall, men do better in tests of spatial ability.
A new review examines published studies on gender roles and the impact the roles may have on the development of skill sets such as spatial abilities.
The observation of a gender differentiation of skill abilities has fostered numerous research studies to determine whether this disparity is attributable to nature or nurture.
These studies are important because there are still fewer women in tertiary education studying science, technology, engineering and math — all subjects where it helps to have good spatial ability.
In the new review, published in the journal Sex Roles, researchers examine one of the factors posited to contribute to gender differences in spatial ability — that of gender-roles.
Although children are born either male or female, individuals differ in their degree of masculine and feminine identification and endorsement of masculine and feminine gender roles, according to researchers David Reilly and David Neumann, Ph.D., from Griffith University in Australia.
Reilly and Neumann note that studies in their review reported finding larger within-gender variations in spatial ability than between-gender. This then led them to look more specifically at the data on variables within males and females which might be able to explain this.
The researchers analyzed 12 studies which had looked specifically at one aspect of spatial ability, namely mental rotation, in high school pupils, college attendees and young adults.
Collectively these studies showed a significant association between masculinity and mental rotation performance for both men and women. In other words, men and women with either a strong masculine or androgynous gender identity fared better in mental rotation tasks.
The authors suggest that it is the considerable variation in the levels of typically masculine and feminine traits and behaviors, that children of the same sex develop, which account for the inter-gender variability.
Masculine identification leads to cultivation of mathematical and scientific skills whereas feminine identification facilitates verbal and language abilities. These gender-roles are not mutually exclusive, with some children of both genders developing a healthy integration of both roles.
Researchers believe development of spatial ability is refined through play and recreational activities, with traditionally masculine activities helping to promote development of spatial ability.
Therefore improving girls’ performance in subjects which require good spatial ability may involve the deliberate inclusion of what are commonly seen as stereotypically male activities into their daily lives, rather than encouraging sex-segregation of activities.