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Similarities and Differences Between Boys and Girls

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

Gender differences in cognitive, social, and personal characteristics have been investigated since the early 1900s. Research has identified differences in several specific cognitive skills as well as in a range of social and personal characteristics. Some differences are apparent from infancy; others do not emerge until late childhood or adolescence. Interestingly, in several skills the differences between boys and girls have shrunk over the last two to three decades. This indicates that socialization and differential experiences play roles in gender differences. Even when gender differences are significant and consistent over time, we still do not fully understand why they exist. Different experiences and socialization are almost certainly involved, but biological factors may also have important effects.

However, the most striking finding in the study of gender is that in most areas the similarities between girls and boys far outweigh the differences. One comprehensive review found that of the 124 meta-analyses included (which represented over 7,000 individual research reports investigating a wide range of cognitive, social, and personality variables), 78% showed small or close-to-zero effect sizes—this indicates few statistical differences between males and females in these studies (Hyde, 2005, 2006). For some variables, context affects whether gender differences were found. For example, when participants were told that gender differences had been found on previous administrations of a math test, males taking the test performed better than females. In contrast, when the participants were told the test was gender-fair, no gender differences were found (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). Similar context effects have been found for both aggressive and helping behavior (Hyde, 2005). While it is important to understand how, when, and why gender differences exist, it is equally important to know when they do not exist so that neither girls nor boys are kept from developing their individual potentials.

Cognitive Skills

In cognitive skills, the largest and most consistent gender differences are found in verbal, language, and certain spatial skills. For example, girls tend to produce words at an earlier age, have a larger vocabulary, and show a higher level of language complexity beginning in early childhood (Feingold, 1993; Halpern, 2000; Hyde & Linn, 1988). The biggest differences in verbal skills during school-age years—all favoring girls—are in spelling, overall language measures, and writing. Some of these gender differences seem to get smaller during adolescence, whereas differences in other areas (e.g., writing) remain (Halpern, 2000). These differences have remained relatively stable over 30 or more years of research. Differences in other specific skills tend to be small, and some have decreased in recent decades (Campbell, Hombo, & Mazzeo, 2000). Clear and consistent gender differences favoring males exist for some spatial skills such as mental rotation (the ability to visualize how an object would look if you viewed it from a different angle). Differences in these areas emerge at around 9 to 13 years and widen throughout adolescence. Like the verbal skills we discussed above, gender differences in mental rotation have remained stable over the last few decades (Masters & Sanders, 1993; Voyer, Voyer, & Bryden, 1995).

Is it true that boys are better than girls in mathematics, as so many people seem to believe? It depends on students' ages and skill levels, as well as on the particular area of mathematics being assessed. The only consistent differences found in elementary school favor girls, both for computation and for grades in math (Halpern, 2000). Girls continue to earn higher grades in math throughout the school years, but their superior performance in computation disappears after about age 15. In studies of very talented populations, boys perform better on several mathematics skills. Gender differences favoring boys appear at adolescence and increase during the high school years, but only in areas involving mathematics problem solving. Since the late 1970s boys have consistently scored about 10% higher than girls on the math portion of the SAT (a standardized test required by many colleges for admission). On national assessments of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, however, math gender differences have decreased since the early 1980s. The most recent national assessment shows small differences for all grade levels (2 point differences at each grade level, out of 500 points for 4th and 8th graders and out of 300 points for 12th graders) (Byrnes, 2001; Grigg, Donahue, & Dion, 2007; Perie, Grigg, & Dion, 2005). Some studies find that girls hold less positive attitudes toward math, show less interest in math, and receive less encouragement for engaging in math-related activities; but the gender difference in taking higher-level math courses such as calculus has declined (Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998; Maccoby, 1998; Perie, Moran, & Lutkus, 2005).

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