Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Sexual selection and sex differences in mathematical abilities

David C. Gearya1

a1 Department of Psychology, University of Missouri at Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211, Electronic mail:


The principles of sexual selection were used as an organizing framework for interpreting cross-national patterns of sex differences in mathematical abilities. Cross-national studies suggest that there are no sex differences in biologically primary mathematical abilities, that is, for those mathematical abilities that are found in all cultures as well as in nonhuman primates, and show moderate heritability estimates. Sex differences in several biologically secondary mathematical domains (i.e., those that emerge primarily in school) are found throughout the industrialized world. In particular, males consistently outperform females in the solving of mathematical word problems and geometry. Sexual selection and any associated proximate mechanisms (e.g., sex hormones) influence these sex differences in mathematical performance indirectly. First, sexual selection resulted in greater elaboration in males than in females of the neurocognitive systems that support navigation in three-dimensional space. Knowledge implicit in these systems reflects an understanding of basic Euclidean geometry, and may thus be one source of the male advantage in geometry. Males also use more readily than females these spatial systems in problem-solving situations, which provides them with an advantage in solving word problems and geometry. In addition, sex differences in social styles and interests, which also appear to be related in part to sexual selection, result in sex differences in engagement iii mathematics-related activities, thus further increasing the male advantage in certain mathematical domains. A model that integrates these biological influences with sociocultural influences on the sex differences in mathematical performance is presented in this article.