Girls and boys have different cognitive abilities

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.

Gender differences do exist

Many studies have been published over the years that focus on group differences between males and females; and consistent differences do emerge. For example, males outperform females on tests of mental rotation[i], which involve comparing pictures of 3D objects in different orientations and deciding if they are the same or different. Females outperform males on word fluency, where participants are given a minute to think of as many examples as they can of a certain category, such as animals or red things[ii]. These group differences are probably amplified in the public perception by high profile research like Simon Baron-Cohen’s. He and his team have developed the Empathy Quotient and Systemising Quotient questionnaire[iii], which tests parental perceptions of 4-11 year old children’s engagement and preference for activities, with girls showing a greater preference for person-oriented activities (empathising) and boys a preference for systems and machines (systemising).

The gender similarities hypothesis

However, not everyone agrees that males and females are so different; the ‘gender similarities hypothesis’ emerged in reaction 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.’[iv]

The author, Janet Hyde, gathered 46 meta-analyses, which together analysed data from around seven million people looking at gender differences across behaviours as diverse as language skills to throwing ability. She found that 78% of the studies showed gender 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 gender gaps when using large national data sets, with small differences in maths achievement emerging only at the very end of school[v]. Although nations do vary quite substantially in the degree to which gender 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[vi].

Furthermore, differences in cognitive ability between men and women that do exist may result not from different aptitude per se, but from the use of different strategies. For example, 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[vii]. Similarly, men and women have been shown to use different strategies on word fluency tests[viii], with women being more likely to switch between categories. 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 over all.

The impact of society

Taking maths as an example again, despite really small differences being seen in terms of performance at school, 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[ix]. So what is it that’s driving such gender inequality if not aptitude?

One likely answer is societal expectation and attitude. How people think they’re perceived 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 gender differences, but when they were told it was a gender fair test, no such difference emerged[x].

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’[xi], 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[xii]. On a national level, the kind of factors that best predict the size of gender gaps in different countries at school age include the female representation in parliament and gender equity in school enrollment[xiii].

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)[xiv]. A literature review from 2006[xv] suggested that this gender gap may be due to boys being led by a male peer group to conceptualise academic achievement as contrary to the prevailing view of masculinity.

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 gender 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 gender gap disappeared[xvi]. 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, yes there are differences between men and women, girls and boys, but those differences are smaller than once thought, and probably due largely 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!


Further resources

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.

To have a go at Baron-Cohen’s Empathising/ Systemising quiz, go here.

The UK Govenment has produced a comprehensive guide to gender differences in UK schools from 1950s-2006


[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.

[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.

[iii] Auyeung, B., Wheelwright, S., Allison, C., Atkinson, M., Samarawickrema, N., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). The Children’s Empathy Quotient and Systemizing Quotient: sex differences in typical development and in Autism Spectrum Conditions. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39 (11), 1509-1521. doi: 10.1007/s10803-009-0772-x.

[iv] Shibley-Hyde, J. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60 (6), 581-592. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581 p.581.

[v] Leahey, E., & Guo, G. (2000). Gender differences in mathematical trajectories. Social Forces, 80, 713–732.

[vi] 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

[vii] Spelke, E. S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60 (9), 950-958 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.950

[viii] 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.

[x] 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.

[xi] Lummis, M., & Stevenson, H. W. (1990). Gender differences in beliefs and achievement: A cross-cultural study. Developmental Psychology, 26, 254–263.

[xii] 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.

[xiii] 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

[xiv] Department for Education and Skills. (2007). Gender and Education: the evidence on pupils in England. The Stationery Office, London.

[xv] Forde, C., Kane, J., Condie, R., McPhee, A. & Head, G. (2006). Strategies to Address Gender Inequalities in Scottish Schools: A Review of the Literature, Scottish Executive Social Research.

[xvi] Feng, J., Spence, I., & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition. Psychological science, 18 (10), 850-855.