Experiencing Gender Differences In Spatial/Visual Abilities

We’ve all heard it before: boys are better at math and spatial reasoning, girls are better at relational thinking and language skills. There’s always more to the story than that, however. The fact that scientists and scholars are still trying to disentangle cultural conditioning from biology means that these concepts must be treated with nuance and approached skeptically until empirical evidence is brought forward to clarify them.

But what’s a feminist scholar to do when life experiences rub these supposed gender differences in her face?

Over dinner with my partner once, we were playing a spatial reasoning game (Pentago, for those who want to check it out – it’s actually a pretty fun game, when I’m not constantly losing). It involves a square board divided into four smaller squares, each of which can rotate 90 degrees during gameplay. You’re trying to place colored spheres on the board in order to get five in a row going any direction, while your opponent is trying to block your efforts and achieve the same goals with their own colored spheres.

After I’d lost the third game in a row, my partner was trying to explain how he thought out his moves in advance. I just had to rotate the squares in my mind, according to him, before placing my piece each turn. I stared at him. I was supposed to rotate one square of four while holding the other three steady in my mind, also while keeping the pattern formed by the little spheres in mind? It seemed impossible.

He was amazed that I couldn’t achieve this simple task of spatial visualization. I was amazed that he could.

Flustered and defensive, I asked him whether he could do something that leapt into my mind, something I knew I could proficiently visualize. “Can you,” I asked, “visualize every item of clothing in your closet, as well as every potential combination into outfits?” He had to admit that he could not.

In retrospect, it did not paint a flattering picture of my intellectual abilities (I say this somewhat snarkily, but I also acknowledge the negative judgments of women, especially academic women, who show an interest in fashion or makeup).

But this led us to another conversation topic: we actually approached our clothing repertoires completely differently, which probably also has gendered ramifications. See, the reason my partner can’t visualize everything in his wardrobe and play matching games in his head all day is because he doesn’t need to. He’s purchased his work wardrobe with simple functionality in mind: all of the collared shirts (in a limited color palette) will match all of the pants (jeans or khakis). So all he needs to do is select a shirt, select pants (probably also underwear and socks, but no one will see those), and he’s good to go. His non-work wardrobe is mainly T-shirts and older pairs of jeans or camouflage pants (for their multiple pockets and comfort), and those he doesn’t care if they match or not.

My wardrobe, on the other hand, is much larger and broader in scope. Not all of my tops will match all of my skirts, due to cut or color or style. There are dresses to factor in, too. Some of my pieces are more easily interchangeable than others, and those are the items I tend to travel the most with. But it really struck me how fundamentally differently we approach clothing; I’m better at mentally matching up items not only because I get more practice at it, but also because I chose to structure my wardrobe that way.

While I went through a tomboy phase as a youngster, I eventually found a way to work with a feminine dressing style that made me feel good about myself. I still worry that being interested in how I look, to the extent of maintaining a sizable and varied wardrobe, will make me look bad in the eyes of other academics. My folklore colleague Brittany Warman addresses this fear, stating: “I worry that people will look at my blog and call my seriousness into question, that it makes me appear vapid and superficial.” A lot of us female academics worry about this, and we struggle to find solutions. There are numerous advice blogs out there, such as a “what not to wear” series by The Professor Is In.

My experience realizing that I am comically bad at some spatial reasoning tasks but good at fashion visualization was one that led to some cognitive dissonance as a feminist scholar. It pointed out how deeply ingrained some sexist practices are, because I had a really egalitarian upbringing and an excellent education, and yet I still suck at certain tasks. It also emphasized how much this stuff is culturally conditioned… because believe me, they didn’t have Pentago or pencil skirts back when our ancestors were evolving, so there’s no way these particular things are hard-wired.

As scientists Kate Clancy and Chris Chambers point out: “Girls are not a monolithic, pink princess-loving entity that responds uniformly to the same siren calls of colour, shopping and cooking. None of these was present when we were evolving; none of this is universal, hard-wired, or intuitive.” We need to address the structural inequalities in how kids are taught to value gender-specific attributes about themselves.

In the meantime, I take solace in being a good pattern-recognizer even if my spatial reasoning abilities leave something to be desired. Recognizing patterns (in storytelling and culture) is, after all, at the heart of what I do as a folklorist. And in terms of games, don’t worry, I’m not doomed to lose at everything because of my deficiencies; challenge me to a match of Set if you don’t believe me!

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.