Gender gap in spatial reasoning starts in elementary school, meta-analysis finds

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | April 16, 2019

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"We're interested in the origins of gender differences in spatial skills because of their potential role in the gender gap we see in math and science fields," says Jillian Lauer, who is set to graduate from Emory in May with a PhD in psychology. (Getty Images)

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It is well-established that, on average, men outperform women on a spatial reasoning task known as mental rotation — imagining multi-dimensional objects from different points of view. Men are not, however, born with this advantage, suggests a major meta-analysis by psychologists at Emory University. Instead, males gain a slight advantage in mental-rotation performance during the first years of formal schooling, and this advantage slowly grows with age, tripling in size by the end of adolescence.

The Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, is publishing the findings.

“Some researchers have argued that there is an intrinsic gender difference in spatial reasoning — that boys are naturally better at it than girls,” says lead author Jillian Lauer, who is set to graduate from Emory in May with a PhD in psychology. “While our results don’t exclude any possibility that biological influences contribute to the gender gap, they suggest that other factors may be more important in driving the gender difference in spatial skills during childhood.”

Co-authors of the paper include Stella Lourenco, associate professor of psychology at Emory, whose lab specializes in the development of spatial and numerical cognition. Co-author Eukyung Yhang worked on the paper as an Emory undergraduate, funded by the university’s Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods. Yhang graduated in 2018 and is now at Yale University School of Medicine.

The meta-analysis included 128 studies of gender differences in spatial reasoning, combining statistics on more than 30,000 children and adolescents aged three to 18 years. The authors found no gender difference in mental-rotation skills among preschoolers, but a small male advantage emerged in children between the ages of six and eight.

While differences in verbal and mathematical abilities between men and women tend to be small or non-existent, twice as many men as women are top performers in mental rotation, making it one of the largest gender differences in cognition.

Mental rotation is considered one of the hallmarks of spatial reasoning. “If you’re packing your suitcase and trying to figure out how each item can fit within that space, or you’re building furniture based on a diagram, you’re likely engaged in mental rotation, imagining how different objects can rotate to fit together,” Lauer explains.

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