Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Nurturing gender differences

Supposedly men are naturally better at spatial reasoning than women are.  However, someone recently conducted a study comparing the spatial reasoning skills of men and women raised in patrilineal vs. matrilineal societies, and found that women in the patrilineal society were less-good at solving a shape puzzle than men were.  The women raised and educated in a matrilineal society solved the puzzle at the same speed that men from their society did.

I have a few concerns about the experiment.   For example, the patrilineal* society compared against the matrilineal* society is described as simply educating their men for more years than they do their women.  I wonder how the results would shake out if the patriarchy's women benefitted from the same education as their men did.

There's a pretty good example of a patrilineal society where women are educated in roughly the same way men are: American/Western schools educate men and women in the same classrooms, and for the same number of years.  In some ways, American education benefits women more than men, yet we still see a differential between men and women in the spatial-reasoning skill.  What was that?  Did somebody say stereotype threat?

Taking all of this together, I think the conclusion is that living/being educated in a patrilineal society negatively affects the spatial reasoning skills of women.  Unfortunately, there are no matriarchies where we could test the effect of patriarchy itself, which I'd find a lot more interesting than the effect of lineage patterns.  The article linked above from The Scientist simply substitutes -lineal for -archal, which I think is rather dishonest (and not something I'd expect from the publication, which I like quite a lot).

*These terms refer to whether family relationships are defined through mothers or fathers.  If children are named with their father's names, it's a patrilineal society.  It may seem like a non-sequitur of a variable to test across, but whichever pattern of lineage a society follows can predict some things about power and family structure.  

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