The social relevance and the socio-cultural origins of gender differences in spatial abilities
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All over the world girls are still highly underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects in school, and only a small percentage of women choose occupational careers in that field. The socially-influenced gender differences in spatial abilities – particularly in the ability to rotate two- or three-dimensional objects in one’s mind – are considered as a cognitive mediator of that gender gap. This paper gives an overview of the social causes and social consequences of the gender differences in spatial abilities. It focuses on sociocultural influences, including gender stereotypes (e.g. the phenomenon of the “stereotype threat”), and the importance of role models in family and school. Furthermore, personal factors like the ability-related self-concept and the effects of experience and training are taken into consideration. The results of empirical studies are reported which reveal that mental-rotation performance is strongly influenced by gender-specific differences in spatial experiences, role models, the ability-related selfconcept and socio-economic status. Finally, the paper discusses why and how women`s perceived lack of spatial abilities might lead to gender-typical educational and occupational choices.
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