A little learning can erase the cognitive gap between men and women.
Cheryl Sorby, a professor of engineering at Ohio State University
, is used to excellent marks. How much she remembered herself, science was given to her easily. She was well versed in mathematics and exact sciences, but “I never thought that there would be a topic about which I would stumble,” she says dryly.
After enrolling in an engineering school, she was surprised to find that she was not coping with a course that for most of her fellow students seemed easy: drawing [engineering graphics]. This is a subject for the first course, and people who do not belong to the engineers, consider it something of a pathetic drawing.
The most difficult - orthogonal projections, the main task of the engineer. Seeing the top, front and side projection of the object, the engineer should be able to imagine a three-dimensional object based on two-dimensional images. It's pretty simple if you are good at what psychologists call "mental spin."
Sorby did it badly. To her surprise and embarrassment, she realized that it was beyond her strength. “For the first time, I wasn’t able to do something in class,” she says. “I didn’t know that I had such poor spatial skills.”
Sorby was not alone. After decades of research, spatial thinking has been called one of the areas that women do worse than men in such tasks as mental rotation or search for a path - orientation in physical space. This difference was used for a controversial explanation of the sexual imbalance in academic achievement in science [STEM - science, technology, engineering, math] [Casey, MB, Nuttall, R., Pezaris, E., & Benbow, CP differences in mathematics college entrance test scores across diverse samples. Developmental Psychology 31, 697-705 (1995)]. In general, in the United States, one third of university teachers are women, but there are only 20% among professors of science and engineering in women.
More recent studies, however, clarified information on the gap in spatial orientation. For the most part, this difference was cultivated by culture, and, according to scientists, it can be eliminated. Plasticity of the brain allows women to improve and enhance spatial skills, says Sorby - as soon as they have the right tools. “This could be a big piece of the puzzle for engaging more women in engineering,” she says.
Psychologists have long taken for granted the fundamental differences in the brains of men and women. But in the 1974 book, which became a turning point, Stanford developmental psychologists Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacqueline [Eleanor Maccoby, Carol Jacklin] studied thousands of studies and found the opposite: there is not much data supporting this generally accepted opinion. The brain of men is bigger, but they have more bodies; except for the size, there are no clear physical characteristics that allow us to uniquely classify the brain as masculine or feminine. A study from 2015, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that "the human brain does not belong to one of two clearly different categories: male / female."
However, over the years, researchers have documented differences in cognitive abilities in men and women — Maccoby and Jacqueline noted this in 1974. Spatial skills, according to Elizabeth Cashden, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, "are the greatest cognitive differences in sex known."
Take the problems with the projections with which Sorby struggled on the course on drafting. They use a person's ability to look at the form and imagine how it will look from other angles and perspectives. Men cope much better with mental rotation, especially in three dimensions; they are also significantly superior to women in “aiming”, which one of the researchers designated as “the ability to throw objects exactly at a certain point in space”.George Bodner, a chemistry teacher from Purdue University, helped develop a spatial thinking test, which also includes an exercise in the picture to help chemical students. “The test measures well the ability of a person to perform spatial exercises that require thinking about objects as a whole, rather than an analytical work of the brain that processes one part of an object at a time,” he says.
Test: rotating the shape in the upper left brings it to the state shown in the upper right. In what state does the same rotation lead the figure in the center?
Maccoby and Jacqueline also found a difference in abilities in math and verbal skills. The data obtained since then demonstrate that spatial skills can explain the sexual gap, as measured by psychologists in the field of mathematical abilities. High marks on tests of mental rotation correspond to high marks on mathematical tests, which include geometry and mathematical problems, the condition of which is described by words in the form of a brief history. Also, spatial thinking skills are a better prediction of an engineer’s success than exams like SAT
So why explain the gap? What is important, differences in spatial thinking are spread throughout the world. They stand out so strongly in such a diversity of cultures that they cannot be explained simply by the artifact of Western education and upbringing.
“If this were a culture problem, there would be differences in different cultures. It must be some kind of biological factor associated with hormones or evolution, says Sorby. “Maybe it all starts with small biological differences that grow because of the environment.”
Psychologists studied girls born with a genetic trait known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia
(CAH), in which abnormal adrenal glands produce a very large number of such hormones as testosterone. And although this disease is usually treated after birth, women exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb are studied as participants in a natural experiment to help them understand if hormones can explain differences in cognitive skills. It turns out that women with mutation VGKN better cope with tests for rotation in the mind than their sisters without such features - and this suggests that even if you control the hormones during adulthood, they can become a factor affecting spatial ability.
However, cause and effect are difficult to distinguish. Differences can occur due to the fact that testosterone affects the development of the hippocampus, the organ most strongly associated with spatial thinking. But girls with the State Committee for Humanitarian Control demonstrate affection for boys' toys, such as constructors. Perhaps hormones are pushing children to preferences that develop their skills in certain specific areas, and then this phenomenon is reinforced by society.
Cashden says that gender differences may have an evolutionary basis. She studied cultures from around the world, as well as studies on the behavior of other species, from oxen
, and came to the conclusion that, on average, males in life go farther from their habitats than females, travel further and go to less familiar places.
Its main assumption was that the evolution of males prepared for the journey in search of food and other females for mating. Males capable of traveling more and further have a reproductive advantage - as do females remaining closer to home, concentrating on the protection and upbringing of offspring. Studies of traditional and modern human communities have shown that long-distance travel corresponds to the best spatial abilities, both in rotation in the mind, and in the search for a way - the ability to navigate the terrain.
It is not yet clear whether the propensity to travel helps men develop better spatial skills, or whether it is better spatial skills that make their travels possible. “We don’t know what the cause is, and what is the effect,” says Cashden. It is only clear that cultural distortions are contributing. Consciously or unconsciously, girls are moved away from classes that could help them develop spatial skills from birth. As they grow up, parents respond to the interests of the children, quickly building up the effect of what could begin as very small deviations.
“Parents are very keen on the difference between the sexes, and any differences between son and daughter are gender,” says Lays Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School at the University of Medicine and Sciences. Rosalind Franklin, author of the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Dangerous Gaps, and What Can Be Done With It? [Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Does Gaps, .
Over time, "boy" toys enhance skills, the effect of which on brain development has already been proven. Games with LEGO and designers, labor lessons at school and time spent on three-dimensional computer games - all this increases the assessment in the tests on the rotation in the mind.Cheryl Sorby has developed a course that also includes this test, which helps women catch up with men in spatial thinking tests.
Test: the displayed sweeps are folded into a cube, on the edges of which the word “CUBE” is written in a circle. Place on each of the schemes the letter "B" in the desired square in the desired orientation.
1) the rightmost cell; 2) the upper cell; 3) the rightmost cell; 4) the middle cell; 5) middle cell; 6) the leftmost cell.
As a result, it is possible and impossible to separate nature and upbringing. But Sorby and other scientists who study gender differences say that this may not matter. Nora Newcomb, a specialist in cognitive psychology and developmental psychology at Temple University, who studied gender differences in spatial thinking, is annoyed at the mention of the idea that the lack of women in science is due to some kind of biological deficiency. “I think that some kind of biological mechanism may be present, but in terms of human potential, it does not seem so important,” she says. “It’s more of an excuse.” Excuse not to do hard work, allowing you to achieve improvements where you are not good enough.
Moreover, if a comparison of the cognitive abilities of men and women can provide measurable differences, the mean values themselves are not all. “For many women, spatial abilities seriously exceed the capabilities of many men,” explains George Bodner, a chemistry teacher at Purdue University, who developed one of the tests, often used to measure spatial skills. Bodner emphasizes that it is important not to support the myth that gender difference means the superiority of all men over all women in tasks related to spatial thinking. Stereotypes about spatial possibilities can lead to subtle results. “When women hear such myths as“ in men, spatial abilities are better than in women, ”they often believe that this is true in their particular case, although it is often not so,” says Bodner.
If Sorby were less stubborn, she would have abandoned engineering in general. Instead, she continued to work, received a bachelor's degree, and then a doctorate in mechanical engineering at the Michigan Institute of Technology, and then got a job as a teacher. The more engineering courses Sorby took, the better she was able to complete her spatial thinking tasks, until she began to teach drawing herself — the very course that nearly stopped her training. “The brain is very plastic in terms of spatial tasks,” says Sorby. “I have greatly improved my abilities in adulthood.”
But that experience does not leave her. As a teacher, she notices young talented girls experiencing the same difficulties. And she wanted to find a solution to this problem. “The existence of sex differences is a difficult task, but not a sentence,” she says. “I know this can be fixed.”
With her colleague, Beverly Baartmans, she developed a spatial visualization course to help her students develop spatial skills. A 15-hour course - using the designer, drawing, software, textbooks with tasks - attracted women who are not worse than men to cope with it, judging by the basic tests for spatial thinking, and helped increase the percentage of students remaining until the end of the course by 20-30% . “If 100 women study at the beginning of the course, you can expect 50 of them to be engineers,” says Sorby. “If we give them this course, then 80 will become engineers.”
Exercises that link movements and gestures with visualization — for example, manipulating blocks to draw them from different sides — appears to be the most influential, but only computer exercises do not affect anything at all. “Drawing helps the most,” says Sorby. “Hand work helps with visualization.”
Newcomk suggests that such courses can change the way our brains work at the subcellular level. “Plasticity depends on functional connectivity, or how you use that brain that you have,” she says. “Individual neurons can grow or lose inputs and inputs, or chemically change at the synapse level.” An important lesson: the reality of gender differences in spatial thinking does not mean that they are fixed. “For most cognitive abilities, the periods of plasticity preservation are quite long — possibly endless,” says Newcomb. “Everyone can improve them.”
Everyone means men too. For example, the Sorby program improves spatial skills and male students, as can be seen from the estimates for the tests. Since they have a head start compared to women, this increase often leads them forward even after the course is over. However, as Sorby says, the course does not improve male abilities as much as women do.
Sorby is still not sure what exactly is happening in the brain. She recently began an experiment to see if her program leads to changes in the brain, measured by fMRI
. “It is important to know not only what is happening, but why,” she admits. But for now, she likes what she already knew. “We have a system and it works,” she says. “We know that after 15 hours of training, girls are more likely to complete a course in engineering.”
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