What’s the idea?
This is a tricky myth because differences that are believed to exist between girls and boys may have a real impact on how children and young people perceive themselves, what subjects they choose in school and their eventual career paths. It is widely believed that girls and boys show different aptitudes in key cognitive skills, with girls being better at language and boys at technical subjects like science and maths. The good news is that because this has been such a hot topic for a long time, there’s plenty of data looking at aptitude and performance, particularly in relation to school achievement.
Sex differences1 – do they really exist?
Many studies have been published over the years focusing on group differences between males and females. Some of the most consistent differences have been found on tests of mental rotation[i], where males typically outperform females, and on tests of word fluency, where females typically outperform males[ii]. More recent research has challenged these seemingly well-accepted findings. For example, in a study which recruited participants with diverse sexual and gender identities, women who self-identified as masculine outperformed others on the mental rotation task, while sex hormone levels were being controlled for[iii]. In addition, another study which fitted participants with eye tracking equipment whilst they completed the mental rotation task found that sex was not related to performance, but the eye gaze strategy employed on the task was[iv]. These findings appear to call into question the received wisdom that biological sex differences lead to specific cognitive differences.
This eye-tracking study is not the only one to suggest that differences in cognitive ability may result not from different aptitude, but from the use of different strategies. For example, it has been found that when navigating, women tend to use landmarks and men tend to use geometric information, but when only one of these sources of information is available to complete a navigation task, men and women perform equally well[v]. Similarly, men and women have been shown to use different strategies on word fluency tests[vi], with women being more likely to switch between different categories to reach a wider pool of potential words. For example, if asked to name animals a woman might start with farm animals but then move on to zoo animals, whereas a man might try harder to stick with farm animals and so end up naming fewer animals overall. Differences in strategy might also account for differences in maths performance, where boys and girls tend to differentially outperform each other depending on the task[vii].
The ‘gender similarities hypothesis’
The ‘gender similarities hypothesis’, authored by Janet Hyde, emerged in response to the weight of studies focusing on how the sexes differed. ‘The gender similarities hypothesis holds that males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables. That is, men and women, as well as boys and girls, are more alike than they are different.’[viii]
Hyde gathered 46 meta-analyses, which together analysed data from around seven million people looking at sex differences across diverse behaviours, from language skills to throwing ability. She found that 78% of the studies showed sex differences to be small or negligible, even in areas classically held to robustly distinguish between males and females. This lack of difference has been mirrored with data from children. Hyde points out that the National Assessment of Educational Progress in America found less than a four point difference in science ability between 9-10 year old boys and girls on a 300 point scale. Others have found similarly negligible sex gaps when using large national data sets, with small differences in maths achievement emerging only at the very end of school[ix]. Although nations do vary quite substantially in the degree to which sex gaps in maths performance can be seen, on average the gap remains small, and indeed differences tend to be larger for attitudes towards maths than for performance[x].
The impact of society
Taking maths as an example again – despite really small differences being seen in terms of performance at school[vii], women are poorly represented in the job market after university, with 94% of maths professors in the UK being men, according to a survey commissioned by the London Mathematical Society[xi]. So, what is it that’s driving inequalities if not aptitude?
One likely answer is societal expectations. How people think they will perform can have a real impact on performance, even on tests you might expect would be immune to such effects. For example, when a group of college students was given a maths test, men outperformed women when they were told that the test usually revels sex differences, but when they were told it was a fair test, no such difference emerged[xii].
The impact of expectation seems to start early. Parents have been found to hold lower expectations for their daughters’ math success than for their sons’[xiii], and parent ratings of their children’s competence in maths strongly predicts children’s own beliefs about their academic competency. By age 8-9 girls and their parents rated their maths lower than boys, even though no achievement difference was evident[xiv]. Girls have been found to report greater levels of maths anxiety than boys starting as early as Year 2[xv], while boys report greater self-efficacy when it comes to maths and science subjects[xvi]. On a national level, the kind of factors that best predict the size of gaps in performance between the sexes in different countries at school age include the levels of female representation in parliament and gender equity in school enrolment[xvii]. A recent study looking at maths, science and reading performance in a large global sample found that countries with greater gender-egalitarian values had narrower achievement gaps between the sexes across all subjects[xviii].
One important example of the influence of perceived societal pressures on academic performance is the case of boys in the UK systematically under-performing in comparison to girls. This is true pretty much across the board, with around 10% more girls achieving 5+ A*-C grades at GCSE compared to boys (63.4% of girls and 53.8% of boys)[xix]. A review by Cambridge Assessment in 2015 found that globally, boys reported spending less time doing homework, and had more negative attitudes to school in general[vii]. It has been suggested that these differences could be due to boys being led by a male peer group to conceptualise academic achievement as contrary to the prevailing view of masculinity[xx].
Addressing the gaps
There are broadly two ways to think about minimising the gender gaps we’ve explored here. The first is to train boys and girls to improve on the skills that, as a group, they score less well on. Research suggests cognitive skills that show sex differences may be quite malleable. For example, a group difference on a spatial attention task was eliminated after men and women were trained for ten hours on the computer game Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. The group as a whole showed improvement on the spatial attention task, but the female participants gained more such that the initial gap between the sexes disappeared[xxi]. The second option is to ignore small differences in cognitive abilities or tendencies and focus on changing expectations around gender, given that expectations and societal gender equity seem to have the bigger impact on performance and life trajectories for both males and females.
“We are more similar than different” (Maya Angelou)
In conclusion, differences between cognitive abilities in men and women, girls and boys, are smaller than once thought, and probably occur largely due to either strategy differences, and/or societal expectations. Any differences that do exist are certainly not relevant to academic potential. The verdict? We’ll declare this one a neuro-myth and be part of the solution!
There’s a number of really interesting, very readable, papers in this area linking academic achievement to life outcomes round the world, we particularly enjoyed: Shibley-Hyde, J. & Linn, M. C. (2006). Gender similarities in mathematics and science. Science, 314, 27.
The UK Government produced a comprehensive guide to gender differences in UK schools from 1950s-2006
The UK Government also has a Women and Equalities Committee which regularly produces news and publications regarding efforts to narrow gaps in education and employment between the sexes.
1 Much older literature used the term ‘gender’ interchangeably with ‘sex’. In contemporary literature ‘gender’ is increasingly used to refer exclusively to social roles and identity independent of assigned sex. The more up-to-date distinction between ‘sex differences’ as features of male and female biology and ‘gender’ as a reflection of social roles has been followed throughout this article.
[i] Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M.P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250–270. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.250
[ii] Weiss, E. M., Ragland, J. D., Brensinger, C. M. Bilker, W. B., Deisenhammer, E. A., & Delazer, M. (2006). Sex differences in clustering and switching in verbal fluency tasks. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 12 (4), 502-509. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-017-0801-1
[iii] Kheloui, S., Brouillard, A., Rossi, M., Marin, M.-F., Mendrek, A., Paquette, D., & Juster, R.-P. (2021). Exploring the sex and gender correlates of cognitive sex differences. Acta Psychologica, 221, 103452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2021.103452
[iv] Toth, A. J., & Campbell, M. J. (2019). Investigating sex differences, cognitive effort, strategy, and performance on a computerised version of the mental rotations test via eye tracking. Scientific Reports, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-56041-6
[v] Spelke, E. S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60 (9), 950-958. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.950
[vi] Weiss, E. M., Ragland, J. D., Brensinger, C. M. Bilker, W. B., Deisenhammer, E. A., & Delazer, M. (2006). Sex differences in clustering and switching in verbal fluency tasks. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 12 (4), 502-509. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1355617706060656
[viii] Shibley-Hyde, J. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60 (6), 581-592. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581 p.581.
[ix] Leahey, E., & Guo, G. (2000). Gender differences in mathematical trajectories. Social Forces, 80, 713–732. https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.2001.0102
[x] Else-Quest, N. M., Shibley-Hyde, J., & Linn, M. C. (2010). Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: A meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 136 (1), 103–127. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018053
[xii] 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. https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1998.1373
[xiii] Lummis, M., & Stevenson, H. W. (1990). Gender differences in beliefs and achievement: A cross-cultural study. Developmental Psychology, 26, 254–263. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.52
[xiv] Herbert, J., & Stipek, D. (2005). The emergence of gender differences in children’s perceptions of their academic competence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26 (3), 276-295. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2005.02.007
[xv] Van Mier, H. I., Schleepen, T. M. J., & Van den Berg, F. C. G. (2019). Gender differences regarding the impact of math anxiety on arithmetic performance in second and fourth graders. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02690
[xvi] Palomares-Ruiz, A., & García-Perales, R. (2020). Math performance and sex: The predictive capacity of self-efficacy, interest and motivation for learning mathematics. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01879
[xvii] Else-Quest, N. M., Shibley-Hyde, J., & Linn, M. C. (2010). Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: a meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 136 (1), 103–127. DOI: 10.1037/a0018053
[xviii] Eriksson, K., Björnstjerna, M., & Vartanova, I. (2020). The relation between gender egalitarian values and gender differences in academic achievement. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00236
[xxi] Feng, J., Spence, I., & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition. Psychological science, 18 (10), 850-855. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01990.x