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Education affects gender differences in spatial ability

The fact that there are less female than male engineers and other technology-related professions that require spatial abilities has been attributed often (too often for my taste) to biological differences in the brains of men and women. It is very difficult to look at the effects of nurture in general (how does one control for all possible variables?) and therefore the "nature" camp may seem more "scientific". Very ingenious researchers from the University of California in San Diego have managed to find almost perfect experimental conditions to test the influence of nature vs nurture in spatial abilities of men vs women: two neighboring populations (tribes) in Northern India, virtually genetically identical, but one is a patriarchy, where women cannot own property and receive on average 4 less years of schooling than the men, while the other is matriarchal and girls receive the same education as boys. The test: solving a puzzle that requires spatial reasoning skills; every participant was paid for correctly solving the puzzle as to avoid confusing skill with motivation. The results? Hardly surprising, but I still love it when the evidence is strong: in the patriarchal society, men solved the puzzle 36% faster than women, while in the matriarchal society, there were no differences between the sexes. In addition, in both populations, each year of schooling resulted in 4% faster puzzle solving, indicating that indeed, level of education is key. These data strongly suggest that education in spatial reasoning could reduce the gap in the number of women who study engineering or science-related subjects.

 

Here is the abstract of the article, just published in PNAS:

 

Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities

  1. Moshe Hoffmana,1,
  2. Uri Gneezya, and
  3. John A. Listb

+ Author Affiliations

  1. aRady School of Management, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093; and
  2. bDepartment of Economics, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637
  1. Edited* by Marc Nerlove, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, and approved July 14, 2011 (received for review November 24, 2010)

Abstract

Women remain significantly underrepresented in the science, engineering, and technology workforce. Some have argued that spatial ability differences, which represent the most persistent gender differences in the cognitive literature, are partly responsible for this gap. The underlying forces at work shaping the observed spatial ability differences revolve naturally around the relative roles of nature and nurture. Although these forces remain among the most hotly debated in all of the sciences, the evidence for nurture is tenuous, because it is difficult to compare gender differences among biologically similar groups with distinct nurture. In this study, we use a large-scale incentivized experiment with nearly 1,300 participants to show that the gender gap in spatial abilities, measured by time to solve a puzzle, disappears when we move from a patrilineal society to an adjoining matrilineal society. We also show that about one-third of the effect can be explained by differences in education. Given that none of our participants have experience with puzzle solving and that villagers from both societies have the same means of subsistence and shared genetic background, we argue that these results show the role of nurture in the gender gap in cognitive abilities.

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Replies to This Discussion

Good article! and now a featured article!

 

In my experience (dealing with 2D representations of 3D objects, as in fancy computer-generated images) I found that the ability to grasp 3D concepts varied immensely between individuals from the same educational and cultural backgrounds. Nothing scientific, just measuring the amount of words needed to elicit 3D understanding. I never observed any correlation of this ability with gender.

It would make sense that like all human abilities, some are simply better than others at it. But also, most human abilities can be improved through education and practice; our brains are pretty plastic and we make new neural connections as we learn.

Would you for instance be able to increase your understanding of how computers work to the point of becoming a whiz? If you put your mind to it?

No. But I would become much better at understanding how computers work if I learned about how they work. I can learn to play tennis, too, but I will not become Venus Williams.

 

People get better and better at playing chess with practice, although very few will become Bobby Fisher.

Interesting that you mention this since if there was a field where women are underrepresented nowadays it's chess:

 

From the Middle Ages through the 18th century, chess was a popular social pastime for both men and women of the upper classes. Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I played, and Thomas Jefferson wrote several times about Benjamin Franklin's playing chess in Paris with socially important women, including the Duchess of Bourbon, who was "a chess player of about his force". Chess games between men and women were a common theme of European art and literature in the fourteenth through 18th centuries.

By the 19th century, however, the chess world had become dominated by male chess players, perhaps as a result of card playing becoming socially acceptable for mixed groups. Then during the 20th century, female players again made significant progress in breaking the male stranglehold on the game, although remaining fewer than 5% of registered tournament players.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_chess_players

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