Gender Differences in Spatial Ability: a Critical Review

Kristin A. Bartlett, Jorge D. Camba

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Spatial ability has long been regarded as important in STEM, and mental rotation, a subcategory of spatial ability, is widely accepted as the cognitive ability with the largest gender difference in favor of men. Multiple meta-analyses of various tests of spatial ability have found large gender differences in outcomes of the mental rotation test (MRT). In this paper, we argue that more recent literature suggests that the MRT is not a valid measure of mental rotation ability. More importantly, we argue that the construct of “spatial ability” itself has been co-constructed with gender, and thus has not been devised in a neutral way, but in a manner that is influenced by gender beliefs. We discuss that though spatial thinking is also required in feminized fields, past research has cast spatial ability as only necessary in masculinized STEM fields. Due to a prevailing belief that spatial ability was an inherently male ability, researchers “selectively bred” some spatial assessment instruments to maximize gender differences, rather than to precisely measure a spatial construct. We argue that such instruments, of which the MRT is one, cannot validly assess between-group differences, and ideas about biological or evolutionary causes of sex differences in spatial ability lack empirical evidence. Instead, the co-construction of gender and spatial ability better explains observed patterns. We also provide recommendations for spatial researchers moving forward.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8
JournalEducational Psychology Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thank you to Dr. Sharra Vostral for providing valuable feedback on an early draft of the work. Thank you also to Dr. Alice Pawley for providing valuable feedback on later drafts and for the excellent theoretical guidance provided through the course “Race, Class, and Gender in Engineering Education.”

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.


  • Gender differences
  • Mental rotation
  • Sex differences
  • Spatial ability
  • Spatial cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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