Source: Nathan Rupert (SD) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, it’s almost summer. And as the weather gets better, more and more social life in my neighborhood shifts outside to the street. As I was sitting at my desk the other day, I noticed two kids playing in the street, a boy of maybe 10 years and a girl, maybe 8. The boy was practicing his basketball skills, dribbling the ball between his legs, moving backwards, sidewards, spinning around, all while keeping perfect control over the ball. The girl on the other hand was listening to music and practicing dance moves from the latest music video (needles to say, both kids were far more skillful in their respective activity than I ever will be). Then something interesting happened: The kids started teaching each other their respective activities. And while the boy did quite a good job of learning the girl’s dance moves, the girl struggled when it came to dribbling the basketball: Whereas before as she was dancing, she was able to move extremely smoothly and elegantly, now her body became stiff. Her eyes fixated on the ball so as not to lose control, her upper body moved up and down parallel to her hand awkwardly and in a very choppy way; and she kept losing the ball repeatedly after every dozen or so dribbles. Is this little anecdote proof then that girls are just naturally less adept at ball games than boys [spoiler alert: it's not]?

It seems that most of the public is quick to assert that men and women (and boys and girls) are fundamentally different when it comes to virtually every measure. That we collectively go to a “gender difference” rather than a “gender similarity” belief as our default position is also reflected in the numerous popular, popular-science and pseudo-science self help books taking up precious space in our book stores, libraries and best-seller lists (from the claim that men and women are virtually from different planets to books asserting boys and girls develop so fundamentally different that they should not even share the same classroom etc.).

However, scientific research finds that actually quite the opposite is true and makes the case for adopting a “gender similarity” hypothesis. Maybe one of the most famous and robust quantitative studies supporting this argument is a meta-analysis undertaken by psychology professor Janet Shibley Hyde. Investigating effect sizes across numerous psychological studies, she found that boys and girls are actually far more similar on virtually every measure than they are different, including traits stereotypically thought of as strongly gendered, such as moral reasoning, verbal ability and math skills. Additionally, she points to the importance of context and gender norms, as psychological experiments show that participants behave in less gender stereotypical ways when their gender is de-emphasized in the lab setting, further debunking the myth that gender difference are inherent and biological. At the same time, she argues that the mere belief in gender differences often serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy that actually results in different gender outcomes. For example, girls who are talented at math may be overlooked by teachers and parents and their conviction that they are less skillful in math may result in lower performance.

Despite finding overwhelming more gender similarity in most areas, her meta analysis found some exceptions to this rule, including motor skills: For instance, boys were found to be more skillful in throwing a ball.* Does this prove then that at least in the realm of sports, gender still matters significantly? Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest just that. One has only to watch a short clip of pop star Mariah Carey performing a ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game to come to the conclusion that women are clearly lacking in certain motor skills:

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While this clip seems to confirm our default beliefs about women and athletic ability, a look at a contrasting case complicates this idea: The following clip shows a ceremonial first pitch by John Wall. Wall is a professional basketball player and NBA All Star, playing point guard, which is the position requiring the best ball handling skills in his team (if you watch a few clips starring John Wall, you will agree that this is an athlete in the prime of his career with amazing body control, ball handling skills, hand-eye coordination etc.). However, watching him throw a baseball does not exactly convey any of these superior motor skills:

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As a matter of fact (and despite more appropriate footwear), his pitch is not much better than Mariah Carey’s (and there are numerous examples of similarly underwhelming throws by semi-professional athletes). What do these clips tell us about gender and throwing ability then? I would argue that these examples show that even a seemingly easy skill like throwing a ball is a learned trait rather than simply a function of muscle development and biological motor skills. As the case of the basketball players awkwardly throwing a baseball demonstrate, it is a very specific skill, too, a set of movements that not simply comes natural to us but that is acquired and mastered through social practice – throwing a ball over and over and over again. In the case of John Wall, we can see that his ball handling skills, fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination do not directly and smoothly translate into the seemingly easy task of throwing a small ball in a straight line. And in the case of children playing outside my apartment window, what we observe is not that girls are naturally bad at ballgames but rather that the girl’s body control and coordination displayed while dancing does not directly translate into her being able to dribble a basketball. Instead, both are quite specific skill sets that require practice and what is sometimes called “muscle memory”.

As fathers are still more likely to throw around a ball with their sons than with their daughters, it is no surprise that this translates into boys being more skillful at ballgames from a very early age. And as boys seem to outperform girls in these games at early ages, it is no surprise then that some of the girls lose motivation – all resulting in a spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies that seems to conform our preconceptions that boys are naturally more adapt at ball games. Similar to the case of gender and long-distance running, ballgames are a perfect case study of how social structure and inequality are inscribed into our bodies and result in material difference.

 

*It is important to emphasize that Prof. Janet Shibley Hyde does not argue that these exceptions are necessarily driven by biology. Her findings are probably quite compatible with my argument here.

**The case of baseball is also especially striking (no pun intended) because it is virtually an all-male sport, with girls being steered towards softball. Jennifer Ring’s book “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball” takes a look at the gender politics of baseball and softball. You can listen to an interview about her book here.

Relevant Readings:

Hyde, J. S. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 6.