National Media Highlights Rady Research on Role of Nurture in Spatial Abilities and the Gender Gap

Spatial Abilities and the Gender Gap

Exciting new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science from Rady School of Management post-doctoral student Moshe Hoffman and professor Uri Gneezy has gained a lot of media attention recently for its thesis that nurture (rather than nature) affects gender differences in spatial abilities. The study challenges the deep-rooted and hotly debated premise - famously espoused by Harvard President Lawrence Summers - that biology determines scientific and mathematical aptitude.

Spatial abilities measure the brain's adeptness at comprehending and manipulating visual information, including two- and three-dimensional figures. Traditionally, men have excelled in this area, which has been considered a key component to their success in the science, technology and engineering fields. Women are underrepresented and have had difficulty building careers in these industries, which has been attributed to a gender gap in spatial abilities. As technology and science become increasingly important to our economy and in the labor market, it is essential to determine the cause of the disparity.

Concentrating on two genetically and geographically similar tribes in India, Hoffman and Gneezy's study explores the role of nature versus nurture in spatial abilities. The study was conducted by giving a spatial-ability puzzle to people from the two tribes - one that is matrilineal and the other, patrilineal. The time it took to complete the simple puzzle served as the measure of spatial ability. The correlational study showed that men take less time than woman to solve the puzzle in the male-dominated tribe. However, in the female-dominated tribe, men and women were able to solve the puzzle in nearly equal amounts of time. The notable difference: The tribes differed in their political and educational treatment of men and women. Hoffman and Gneezy's findings indicate that nurture, or culture, does in fact play an important role in determining spatial and cognitive ability.

Hoffman, who acknowledges that the study is somewhat limited and the test nonstandard, would like to return to India to test additional measures of spatial abilities and other cognitive traits among the two tribes. He also would like to measure gender differences in spatial abilities in another matrilineal society, including a tribe residing in the Yunnan province in southern China.

In the interim, the study's conclusions, which have been covered by esteemed publications and media outlets including Time and Discover Magazine and The Wall Street Journal could encourage the public debate and inform policy and strategy in closing the gender gap. "Public policy, as well as social interventions by concerned teachers and parents, who can influence nurture but have little sway over nature, can be effective in reducing the gender gap in spatial abilities," confirms Hoffman. By declaiming stereotypes and providing additional training to all students, regardless of gender, we may see our community and education system become more egalitarian, allowing women and men to thrive in all areas of study.

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