Spatial Visualization:  Is There a Gender Difference?


Dr. Therese Bennett

Mathematics Department

Southern Connecticut State University


Abstract:  The questions of whether gender differences in spatial skills exist and if so, whether these differences affect the performance of women in mathematics classes that require spatial visualization have been the focus of many research studies over the past twenty years.  As a result, theories ranging from biological factors to culturally based differences in the sexes to performance factors related to testing environments have been proposed and tested.    Performance factors include time limits on tests, test taking strategy, previous task experience, and expectations of task success.  A summary of some of the gender differences that have been found in the research, the theories that have been proposed, and ways in which the researchers were able to decrease the gender gap by changing the performance factors will be presented.  In particular, studies that examined gender differences on the Mental Rotations Test (MRT), which has produced the largest gender gap on record, will be addressed.



            As stated in the abstract, the focus of this talk will be on presenting a summary of some of the extensive research that has been done on gender differences in spatial skills.  This debate began as far back as 1980 when Benbow and Stanley published an article in Science in which they conclude that “sex difference in achievement in and attitude towards mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability, which may in turn be related to greater male ability in spatial tasks”.  Over the past twenty years, many research studies have taken on the questions of whether girls have less ability in spatial visualization and if so, what factors might affect the observed gender differences.  While biological and cultural factors have been studied and debated, some recent studies have focused on identifying performance factors that, when changed, reduce or eliminate the gender gap.

            Two studies in particular that were published in Memory and Cognition, look at the gender gap in scores on the Mental Rotations Test (MRT).  On this test, students are asked to look at a three-dimensional shape, and given four choices of similar objects (two of which are rotations of the original shape) are asked to identify the two alternatives that match the original.  These studies used ratio scores (number correct/number attempted) to conclude that the gender gap for mental rotation skills is significantly reduced when the effects of performance factors such as timed tests and guessing answers as a test-taking strategy are eliminated.  While the first study focused only on the MRT,  the second study gave a battery of fifteen spatial skill tests and found significant gender differences only on those tasks requiring mental rotation.

            A Harvard study has shown that playing video games for several hours improved women’s scores on spatial visualization, but had no affect on men’s scores.   Another study has concluded that when “I don’t know” is one of the multiple-choice options, women tend to use it more frequently then men.  When this option was removed from an exam assessing spatial skills, there was no clear gender difference. These and other studies may be included in the talk as time permits.