Gender Differences: Research Findings
Researchers have identified a number of differences in the physical, cognitive, personal, and social domains.
Physical Activity and Motor Skills
Boys are temperamentally predisposed to be more active than girls. Thus, they have more trouble sitting still for long periods, are less likely to enjoy reading (a decidedly sedentary activity), and are more apt to pose classroom discipline problems (W. O. Eaton & Enns, 1986; B. A. Freedman, 2003; Gay, 2006). Before puberty, boys and girls seem to have similar potential for physical and psychomotor growth, although girls have a slight edge in fine motor skills (e.g., writing numbers and letters). Overall, however, boys develop their physical and motor skills more, perhaps through participation in organized sports. After puberty, boys have a biological advantage in height and muscular strength—that is, they’re taller and, because of increased levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, they’re stronger (Halpern, 2006; Hyde, 2005; J. R. Thomas & French, 1985).
Such differences are hardly justification for favoring either gender when enhancing students’ physical fitness, of course. Physical education curricula and sports programs should provide equal opportunities for boys and girls to maximize their physical well-being and athletic skills.
Boys tend to develop their physical skills more than girls, often through organized sports. When a second-grade teacher asked her students to create self-portraits, 8-year-old Andrew dressed himself as a basketball player.
Cognitive and Academic Abilities
On average, boys and girls perform similarly on tests of general intelligence, in part because people who construct the tests eliminate items that favor one group or the other (Halpern & LaMay, 2000). Researchers sometimes do find differences in more specific cognitive abilities, however. The most consistently observed gender difference is in visual-spatial ability, the ability to imagine and mentally manipulate two- and three-dimensional figures.
Study after study has found that, on average, males do better at such visual-spatial tasks than females. In contrast, females seem to have the advantage in some, but not all, verbal skills; for instance, girls have, on average, larger vocabularies and can more quickly identify the words they need to express their thoughts (Halpern, 2004, 2006; Halpern & LaMay, 2000; Lippa, 2002). However, most gender differences in specific cognitive abilities tend to be quite small, with considerable overlap between the two groups (e.g., see Figure 4.1). In addition, boys often show greater variability in cognitive abilities than girls do, causing more boys than girls to appear at the extreme upper and lower ends of the population (Feingold, 1992; Halpern & LaMay, 2000; Hedges & Nowell, 1995).
Even though ability levels may be similar, girls consistently earn higher grades in school (Halpern & LaMay, 2000; Wigfield et al., 1996). But if achievement is measured by achievement tests rather than grades, research findings are inconsistent. When differences are found, girls typically have an advantage in reading and writing, and after puberty boys tend to have the upper hand in mathematical problem solving (Halpern, 2006; Halpern & LaMay, 2000; Hedges & Nowell, 1995; Penner, 2003).
Not only are gender differences in visual-spatial, verbal, and mathematical performance quite small, but some researchers have found them to be getting smaller in recent years. In other words, boys and girls are becoming increasingly similar in their academic performance (Eisenberg et al., 1996; Gustafsson & Undheim, 1996; Spelke, 2005). Thus, in general we should expect boys and girls to have similar academic aptitudes for different subject areas.
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