Could playing 'boys' games help girls in science and math?

Apr 04, 2013

The observation that males appear to be superior to females in some fields of academic study has prompted a wealth of research hoping to shed light on whether this is attributable to nature or nurture. Although there is no difference in general intelligence between the sexes, studies over the past 35 years have consistently found that overall men do much better in tests of spatial ability than women. This difference may have something to do with why there are still fewer women in tertiary education studying science, technology, engineering and math – all subjects where it helps to have good spatial ability.

More in-depth assessment, however, reveals that this might be an over-simplification of the facts. A new review, published in Springer's journal Sex Roles, sheds light on one of the factors contributing to these in , 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. The review was carried out by David Reilly and David Neumann from Griffith University in Queensland, 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 which might be able to explain this.

The researchers analyzed twelve 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 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 are not mutually exclusive, with some children of both genders developing a healthy integration of both roles.

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.

The authors conclude: "We have seen many changes in society's beliefs about gender equality in the intervening decades since Sharon Nash proposed her gender-role mediation hypothesis of intellectual development in 1979. However, for spatial ability at least, this association seems as relevant today as when the claim was first made."

Explore further: New poll reveals what Americans fear most

More information: Reilly, D. and Neumann, D.L. (2013), Gender-role differences in spatial ability: a meta-analytic review, Sex Roles. DOI 10.1007/s11199-013-0269-0

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User comments : 4

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Lurker2358
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2013
They won't learn anything about science or math by watching the following:

Oprah
Kardashians
Honey Boo Boo
Real Housewives
Dancing and singing reality shows
Soap Operas
Sex and the City

They also won't learn anything about real social life or responsibilities from any of that, with the exception of Oprah.
Moebius
1 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2013
Could playing 'boys' games help girls in science and math? Could playing 'girls' games help boys in home ec? (pass the tea please)
dan42day
3 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2013
They seem as determined to turn women into men as they were to turn homosexuals "straight" 50 years ago. The results will be the same, increased depression and suicide. Let people follow whatever course feels right to them and stop trying to re-engineer them to fit your delusions of what is "best".

Equal does not mean identical.
ab3a
not rated yet Apr 05, 2013
The question is whether girls gravitate toward games with less spatial ability because they're biologically biased against it, or whether they're socially discouraged from playing such games.

I teach shooting sports to kids. I find it interesting that there are significantly more girls involved in the air rifle, archery, and small bore firearm competitions than there are on the shotgun ranges.

These sports have very similar interest profiles, but the latter is dominated by boys while the former has many girls who compete very well against the boys.

Yes, this is the nature/nurture question. And these are just anecdotal observations. But it does provide food for thought...