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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

6 - Spatial Ability as a Mediator of Gender Differences on Mathematics Tests: A Biological–Environmental Framework


It is well known that there is a gender difference on a number of standardized mathematics tests, with males outperforming females (Hyde, Fennema, & Lamon, 1990; Willingham & Cole, 1997). In addition, a relationship has been found between spatial abilities and mathematics test scores (Burnett, Lane, & Dratt, 1979; Casey, Nuttall, Pezaris, & Benbow, 1995; Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 1997; Geary, Saults, Liu, & Hoard, 2000; Robinson, Abbott, Berninger, & Busse, 1996). This relationship may be key for understanding gender differences in mathematics because one of the best-known and largest gender differences is the male advantage on some types of spatial skills (Linn & Petersen, 1985). In fact, evidence has begun to accumulate that shows a connection between gender differences in mathematics achievement and gender differences in spatial skills (Casey et al., 1995; Casey et al., 1997; Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 2001).

In this chapter, we review our research findings, which were designed to address a series of questions to better understand gender differences in math achievement. We propose that gender differences in spatial skills are the key to understanding gender differences in math achievement. After presenting findings on this connection, the conclusion of the chapter provides a biological/environmental framework to help understand how variations in spatial abilities might arise.


The observed gender differences in mathematics performance are not universal (Hedges & Nowell, 1995; Hyde et al., 1990).

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