This STEM Skill Has A Major Gender Gap, But Parents Can Fix It — Here's How

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One type of skill set that's incredibly valuable in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields is called spatial reasoning, a cognitive ability that involves being able to think about objects in a three-dimensional way and think about how they might look when rotated or rearranged. A large body of research has shown these spatial skills can predict how successful you'll be in a STEM-related area of work.

"If you're packing your suitcase and trying to figure out how each item can fit within that space, or you're building furniture based on a diagram, you're likely engaged in mental rotation, imagining how different objects can rotate to fit together," explains Jillian Lauer, a psychology Ph.D. student at Emory University, in a news release.

When it comes to mental rotation in particular, men tend to perform far better than women. Twice as many men are top performers in mental rotation cognitive tests than women, and according to the science, this is considered one of the biggest cognitive differences between men and women. Research even shows differences in mental rotation abilities between those two genders in both middle school and college largely explain differences in their science and math test scores.

However, new research from the American Psychological Association led by Lauer suggests this is likely not a biological difference: Boys aren't born better at mental rotation than girls, but they gain an advantage during their earliest years of schooling.

Teaching the boys—but not the girls.

Published in the Psychological Bulletin, the new study involved a meta-analysis of 128 studies on gender differences in spatial reasoning, which included data on more than 30,000 kids between ages 3 and 17. Preschoolers had no differences in mental rotation abilities, but the boys began to be more skilled at it between ages 6 and 8. Then the gender gap steadily grew with age throughout kids' adolescence.

"Some researchers have argued that there is an intrinsic gender difference in spatial reasoning—that boys are naturally better at it than girls," Lauer says. "While our results don't exclude any possibility that biological influences contribute to the gender gap, they suggest that other factors may be more important in driving the gender difference in spatial skills during childhood."

This study didn't uncover how those differences emerge, but previous research has shown parents use more "spatial language" (references to shapes and characteristics of objects related to space and dimension) when they talk to their preschool sons than they do their daughters. It's also possible that some activities that young boys stereotypically engage in—like building blocks, construction-related games, and some video games—might encourage more spatial skill development.

"By determining when the gender difference can first be detected in childhood and how it changes with age, we may be able to develop ways to make educational systems more equitable," Lauer says. "Giving both girls and boys more opportunities to develop their spatial skills is something that parents and educators have the power to do."

That means part of eliminating the gender gap in STEM starts at home and in schools.

What can parents do?

Parents of daughters should consciously encourage them to engage spatially, starting from their preschool years or earlier. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Encourage her to play with blocks, puzzles, and building-related games.
  • Talk about the physical shapes of common household objects. Draw her attention to what's round, what's square, what's tall, what's flat, and more.
  • Have her play some 3D video games. (Seriously—one study found just 10 hours of playing an action game basically eliminates the gender difference in spatial attention and drastically decreases the difference in mental rotation.)
  • Encourage her to draw and sketch in 3D.
  • Keep her stereotype-free. Studies show girls recognize gender stereotypes about mental rotation by elementary school—and sometimes curtail their own abilities because they assume girls just aren't as good as the boys. Keep her confident!

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