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Gender Identity and Spatial Reasoning

Posted on July 2, 2013

Photo from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license.

A review published last week in Sex Roles suggests differences between girls’ and boys’ spatial reasoning ability is related to gender identity rather than biological sex, as typically thought. Since the 1960s, researchers have attempted to explain the under-representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering,and math), especially at the university and graduate levels. Historically, girls have been expected to suffer from underdeveloped spatial reasoning, and one theory states that this may hinder their long-term achievement in difficult math and science courses. This new review, conducted by researchers at Griffith University in Australia, suggests that social factors, including socialized gender-specific play,societal expectations for girls versus boys, and pressure to conform, influence children’s development of spatial reasoning abilities, and subsequent interest in and achievement for STEM subjects. Significant intra-sex differences,however, suggest these differences are more strongly correlated with masculinity – as opposed to biological assignment – of the individual.

More than thirty years ago, Sharon Nash suggested that gender roles could either bolster or hinder children’s cognitive development in certain areas, which she termed gender-role mediation. She claimed that identifying with or being raised into a masculine role reinforces math, science, and spatial abilities, whereas feminine identification or socialization highlights verbal and language skills.This theory has been supported by similar studies, which reaffirm that “boys’play” emphasizes spatial skills while “girls’ play” strengthens social skills. As children grow, society widens the gender divide by (implicitly and explicitly)implying which careers are good for boys and which are good for girls. This pressure impacts students’ interest and self-confidence in pursuing highly gender-typed subjects, and becomes especially troublesome in secondary school when pressure to conform increases and girls, for instance, are less likely than ever to enroll in stereotypically-masculine subjects like advanced math and science. Moreover, by this age a real discrepancy exists between the genders’ abilities to perform tasks (e.g. mental rotation), so girls are often less likely to succeed in “boys’ subjects” even if they choose to go against the norm.

However, this recent review looked at separating biological sex (i.e. male versus female) from gender identity (i.e. masculine versus feminine). Researchers examined twelve studies on gender roles and mental rotation ability in adolescents. They found that gender identity is especially influential in the development of spatial ability for men—higher masculine identify correlating with higher mental rotation ability. They also established that gender roles have remained consistent over time, despite increased gender equality in recent years. This conclusion suggests that early interventions,including sex integration during play activities, may help struggling children develop better spatial reasoning skills.

At Case Western Reserve University, Schubert Center Faculty Associates Renee Sentilles and Eileen Anderson-Fye study gender differences across time and culture, while Sandra Russ examines the role of play in child development.

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