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Science Background and Spatial Abilities in Men and Women

Abstract

Deficits in spatial abilities, particularly mental rotation (MR), may contribute to women's avoidance of areas of study that rely on MR, including chemistry. Women who do experience success in chemistry may do so because they have good MR skills. We examined MR ability, assessed by the Purdue Visual Rotations Test (PVRT; Bodner and R. B. (1997)) in three groups of students: those with no college science background, those with a limited college science background that did not include organic chemistry, and those with more extensive science background including organic chemistry. Men and women with extensive background that included organic chemistry performed equally on the MR task, as did those students who had no college science background. However, men outperformed women on the MR task if they had limited science training, although this effect was mediated by the total number of chemistry courses taken. Self-reports of competence on the task were positively related to MR ability, but neither self-described effort nor other background variables (such as experience with spatial tasks and participation in athletics) were important to MR. Grades in science courses were not related to MR capability for any group of students. Our results suggest that while women often show a lesser ability with MR tasks, this deficit may not be an important contribution to women's tendency to avoid the physical sciences.

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Brownlow, S., McPheron, T.K. & Acks, C.N. Science Background and Spatial Abilities in Men and Women. Journal of Science Education and Technology 12, 371–380 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/B:JOST.0000006297.90536.7c

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  • gender differences
  • spatial abilities
  • chemistry