Spatial Working Memory and Gender Differences in Science

By Geiger John F.; Litwiller, Robert M. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Spatial Working Memory and Gender Differences in Science


Geiger John F., Litwiller, Robert M., Journal of Instructional Psychology


One reason for the lack of female participation in science could be due to cognitive differences between males and females. The present study measured verbal and spatial working memory for 15 males and 48 females. Males were found to have both a larger verbal memory and a larger spatial memory. Participants then read texts that either presented the information in both the text and diagram, or in only the text or only the diagram. Recall and question answering data found that males comprehended the material better than females. It was also found that information from the text was remembered better than information from the diagram. The results were explained in terms of working memory span and comprehension.

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Although females have made great strides in recent years in catching up to males in science participation, science is still a male dominated discipline. In 1994, 74% of the students taking the Physics Advanced Placement portion of the SAT were male. We see the same discrepancy in education-42% of the two-year degrees in the physical sciences go to females, 32.6% of Bachelor degrees, 29% of Masters degrees, and 22% of Doctorates in the physical science are awarded to females (U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics, 1993). This gender difference increases when we look at who is actually working in the scientific fields. Females only comprise 27.3% of the natural scientists, and 31.9% of the chemists (U.S. Bureau of Labor, 1995). The overall picture that emerges from these figures is that males outperform females on tests of scientific achievement, are more likely to pursue a degree is science, and are more likely to actually work in the scientific fields.

At least two main explanations are offered as to why males outperform females on tests of scientific ability, and why males are more likely to pursue a career in science. One explanation is that science is stereotyped as a male activity, which causes girls to have lower expectations for success (Eccles, 1987). For example, Shinar (1975) has found that physicist is a highly male stereotyped occupation, and we know that even elementary school children can distinguish occupational stereotypes and base their occupational preferences upon these stereotypes (Tremaine & Schau, 1979). Achievement in science is bound to be less valued if one does not view science as a possible occupation.

The educational setting has also been used to explain why females do not perform as well as males in science. Textbooks present information in stereotyped fashion-portraying boys as active, resourceful, creative, and problem solvers, and girls as passive, helpless, and dull (Scott, 1981). The proportion of teachers in the scientific fields is also weighted in favor of males, providing females with fewer science role models. The classroom environment may also discourage females from participating and asking questions, especially in a science class that is primarily male (Kung, 1997). Staberg (1994) found that boys would boo when girls gave the wrong answer, and sigh when girls asked questions. Some girls reported that they hardly ever raised their hand because they "were afraid of saying something wrong" (p. 39).

Another way to explain gender differences in the sciences is to take a cognitive psychology approach. This approach starts by looking at the known cognitive differences between males and females. In the past, females outperformed males on verbal tasks, but these differences have been eliminated in recent years (Hyde & Linn, 1988). The same is not true for spatial abilities, though. Research has consistently found that males outperform females on spatial tasks, and this gender difference persists (Robinson, Abbot, Berninger, & Busse, 1996).

Next, one needs to examine the underlying processes of verbal and spatial ability. Both of these abilities are related to working memory capacity, which is the amount of material that can be attended to at any given moment. …

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