Gender differences in cognitive performance

  • gender differences exist in spatial-visual imagination, analytical thinking, verbal skills and the speed of perception
  • these observed differences are small
Overview of topics:
Spatial imagination
Analytical thinking
Verbal skills
Perceptual speed

Various studies show that certain cognitive differences between the sexes exist already in childhood. For example, boys and girls tend to respond differently describing a ball. While girls often use descriptions such as „It is round, filled with air, looks colourful and is made of rubber“, boys are more likely to say „It bounces, you can use it to play football or throw in windows“1. So, girls tend to describe characteristics of the ball, while boys tend to name activities that can be performed with it.

Also, intelligence tests show differences between the sexes in some areas. Headlines sometimes choose a general winning gender2. Studies that measure IQ, however, sometimes go in one direction, sometimes in the other, and effect sizes are low3. A single number does not reflect the complexity of cognitive performance. Actually, it is interesting to see in which areas differences occur and whether these are congenital or have developed because of different treatment of the sexes.

On this page you will first find results from studies on potential gender differences in cognitive performance. Afterwards, we » discuss here whether these differences are congenital or have developed through the environment. (Just continue reading, we provide again a link to the next page at the end.)

The effect size (d) indicates how strong a difference is:
d = 0,2 small effect
d = 0,5 medium effect
d = 0,8 great effect

Spatial imagination

In a test conducted by Linn & Peterson in 1985, they asked participants to bring a light line in a dark room into its vertical position. The sexes did not differ significantly in their solutions. Subsequently, however, the research team placed an additional vertical line in the room. As a result, women showed a more pronounced tendency to take this new placed line as orientation to place their light line. Such a tendency for using a reference is referred to as field dependence.

Imagine the capital letter „E“ as a 3-D object. How many surfaces does it have? A task like this tests your spatial-visual imagination, which is closely tied to your target accuracy and your ability to find the way out of a labyrinth, for example, as well as your understanding of technical processes with a spatially bound causal structure.

cognitive performance - mental rotation
Excerpt from a task on mental rotation

The illustration above shows a typical exercise for mental rotation, which is the only category where actually robust gender differences were observed4. Spatial perception and visualization on the other hand show at most moderate effects5. According to Quaiser-Pohl 1998, p.41, no consistent gender differences in spatial-visual perception were found in children. It is only in adulthood that men achieve slightly better values on average6.

Analytical thinking

Analytical thinking the ability …

  • to break down structures into their constituent parts
  • to understand functions of individual parts of the whole to be able to carry out restructurings

In subjects such as physics and computer science, male students still predominate in numbers. In Germany in 2017, almost 75 percent of students in engineering sciences were male7. In contrast, 75 percent of students in psychology in 2018 were female8.

cognitive performance math
Test results of the mathematical part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT-M) 1980 – 83 according to Bischof-Köhler 2006

The figure above shows the math results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT-M) from 1980 – 839. The test is required by most universities in the USA. The two gender curves mainly overlap, which means that for most boys there is a girl with the same test result and vice versa. Slightly more girls than boys are in the 400-point range. Among candidates with a higher score of 500 or more, however, there are more boys. It looks as if the average difference between the sexes at that time was particularly influenced by the boys with unusually high test results.

Boys begin to show a slight lead from about ten years of age. But today there are some countries where girls are better in math at school than boys. In this way, girls extend their general performance advantage in school10. In the USA, too, girls achieve better marks in math, but fail to show those skills in other mathematical tests, like the SAT. One reason can actually be that the SAT measures mainly mental rotation instead of the broad range of mathematical skills. Hyde et al. 1990, after reviewing 100 studies, come to the conclusion that gender differences are very small overall with an average weighted effect size of d=0.1511.

Verbal skills

Girls on average can spell better, are more confident in the use of grammar and form longer sentences (unless interrupted by boys). They are generally more eloquent. A study by Kimura, 1992 and Hyde & Linn 1988 (according to Bischof-Köhler 2006) shows that on average women have a higher mental agility (fluidity of ideas or words). They can enumerate more objects of the same colour or words with the same initial letter (d = -0.22; -0.38) and form anagrams (d=-0.25). They also tend to find it easier to understand complicated texts and demanding logical relationships. But again, effect sizes are small.

Even little girls form words and sentences earlier, articulate better and are more eloquent. They have less difficulty learning to read. Dyslexics and stutterers are mostly boys. The girls‘ broad verbal advantage decreases somewhat in their middle childhood, but becomes clear again from the age of ten12

Perceptual speed

The speed of perception measures the amount of time it takes to detect differences between objects. It plays an important role in neuropsychological diagnostics and cognitive aging. Test persons get a list of symbols and a list of numbers. Researchers measure the time they need to assign the corresponding symbols to the numbers. On average, women perform better with small to medium effect sizes13.

» next topic:

Reasons for the gender difference in cognitive performance

Now that you know gender differences in cognitive performance, you’re probably wondering where they come from, right? Learn more now »


  1. Bischof-Köhler 2006 p. 213
  2. or „Men are smarter – and dumber“ Call 13.07.2019
  3. call 24.07.2019
  4. Linn and Peterson 1985
  5. Kimura 2002
  6. call 13.07.2019
  7. call 13.07.2019
  8. call 10.05.2019
  9. Bischof-Köhler 2006 p. 228
  10. on demand 13.07.2019
  11. call-off 10.05.2019
  12. Bischof-Köhler 2006 p. 217
  13. call 13.07.2019

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