Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills

Research debunks myths about cognitive difference.

Findings

Are boys better at math? Are girls better at language? Is aptitude or culture the reason that fewer women than men work as scientists and engineers? Psychologists have gathered solid evidence that when it comes to how — and how well — we think, males and females differ in very few but significant ways.

The evidence has piled up for years. In 1990, Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, and colleagues published a groundbreaking meta-analysis that compiled data from 100 different studies of math performance. Synthesizing data collected on more than 3 million participants between 1967 and 1987, the researchers found no large overall differences between boys and girls in math performance. Girls were slightly better at computation in elementary and middle school. In high school, boys showed a slight edge in problem solving, possibly because they took more science classes that emphasized those skills. But boys and girls understood math concepts equally well and any gender differences actually narrowed over the years, belying the notion of a fixed or biological differentiating factor.

As for verbal ability, in 1988, Hyde and colleagues reported that data from 165 studies revealed a female advantage so slight as to be meaningless, despite previous assertions that girls are more verbally adept. What's more, the authors found no evidence of substantial gender differences in any component of verbal processing.

In a 2005 report, Hyde reviewed 46 different meta-analyses on sex differences, not only in cognition but also communication style, social and personality variables, motor behaviors and moral reasoning. In half the studies, sex differences were small; in another third they were virtually nonexistent.

Also in 2005, Elizabeth Spelke, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard University, and colleagues reviewed 111 studies and concluded that gender differences in math and science ability have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood. Nevertheless, the studies suggested that men and women on the whole possess an equal aptitude for math and science. In fact, boy and girl infants were found to perform equally well as young as 6 months on tasks that underlie mathematics abilities.

Despite such evidence, questions of gender differences have persisted, in part because men still outnumber women in science and math careers. In 2007, Diane Halpern, PhD, and colleagues including Hyde published a consensus statement regarding that disparity. Indeed, studies suggest that women tend to score slightly higher than men on verbal abilities, while men tend to have a slight edge when it comes to visuospatial skills, the researchers report. However, biology is only a small part of the explanation. The researchers conclude that early experience, educational policies and culture also strongly affect success in math and science.

Other studies suggest that when it comes to math, girls and boys are similarly capable. A 2008 analysis by Hyde and colleagues reported that in children from grades two to 11, there was no gender difference for math skills. And in 2009, Hyde and Janet Mertz, PhD, reported that while more boys than girls score at the highest levels in mathematics, that gender gap has been closing over time. In fact, they reported that the gap is smaller in countries with greater gender equality, suggesting that gender differences in math achievement are largely due to cultural and environmental factors.

Significance

The research suggests that perceived or actual differences in cognitive performance between males and females are most likely the result of social and cultural factors.that. For example, where girls and boys have differed on tests, researchers believe social context plays a significant role. Spelke believes that differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but to cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that kick in during high school and college.

In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues explored gender differences among men and women who had a strong math background. They found that merely telling women that a math test had previously shown gender differences hurt their performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.

Anxiety may be another mechanism explaining gender differences in math performance. A 2014 study by researchers at Boston College found that women had greater anxiety during a math test, which taxed their working memory and led them to underperform on the test. Teaching girls strategies to manage that anxiety could be one useful means to help to close the gender gap in math achievement, the researchers suggest.

Practical application

If males and females were truly understood to be intellectual equals, things might change in schools, colleges and universities, industry and the workplace in general. As Hyde and her colleagues noted in 1990, "Where gender differences do exist, they are in critical areas. Problem solving is critical for success in many mathematics-related fields, such as engineering and physics." They believe that well before high school, children should be taught essential problem-solving skills in conjunction with computation. The researchers also point to the quantitative portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which may tap problem-solving skills that favor boys. The resulting scores are used in college admissions and scholarship decisions. Scientifically unsound gender stereotyping not only costs individuals, but society as a whole.

Cited research and further reading

Ganley, C.M., and Vasilyeva, M. (2014). The role of anxiety and working memory in gender differences in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology 106 (1), 105-120.

Halpern, D.F., Benbow, C.P., Geary, D.C., Gur, R.C., Hyde, J.S., and Gernsbacher, M.A. (2007). The science of sex differences in science and mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 8 (1), 1-51.

Hyde, J. S., & Linn, M. C. (1988). Gender differences in verbal ability: A meta- analysis.   Psychological Bulletin, 104 , 53-69.

Hyde, J.S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis.   Psychological Bulletin, 107 , 139-155.

Hyde, J.S. (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis.   American Psychologist, 60 (6), 581-592.

Hyde, J.S., Lindberg, S.M., Linn, M.C., Ellis, A.B., and Williams, C.C. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 , 494-495.

Hyde, J.S. and Mertz, J.E. (2009). Gender, culture and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (22), 8801-8807.

Spelke, Elizabeth S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science?: A critical review.   American Psychologist, 60 (9), 950-958.

Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999) Stereotype threat and women's math performance.   Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35 , 4-28.


American Psychological Association, August 2014