The implications for academic attainment of perceived gender-appropriateness upon spatial task performance

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Background. Male superiority in spatial ability has traditionally been used as an explanation for the male domination of ‘spatial’ disciplines such as mathematics, science and computing. Data are presented which show the degree of male domination of these disciplines at a range of academic levels.

Aims. To evaluate the effect of describing a spatial ability test either as a measure of spatial ability (traditional format) or as a measure of empathy, upon male and female performance. Psychological gender is also assessed to evaluate the role of masculinity and femininity upon performance.

Method. Eighty-four sixth form students were presented with the Group Embedded Figures Test in the assessment's traditional format and as a measure of ‘empathy’. Levels of masculinity and femininity were also assessed using the Bern Sex Role Inventory.

Results. Whilst the description of the nature of the assessment did not affect male performance, female performance varied significantly as a function of test description. Females only underperformed when the test was described as a measure of spatial ability. Additionally, those high in masculinity were found to outperform those high in femininity.

Conclusions. The results suggest that ‘apparent’ sex differences in spatial ability are more accurately described as psychological gender differences which determine the motivation to attempt the assessments.

Comment. The implications for genderised activities (such as computing) within education are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)203-215
Number of pages13
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1998


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