Men Are Better At Maps Until Women Take This Course

Andrew Curry:

Sheryl Sorby, a professor of engineering education at Ohio State University, was used to getting A’s. For as long as she could remember, she found academics a breeze. She excelled in math and science in particular, but “I never thought there was a subject I couldn’t do,” she says matter-of-factly.

So when she started engineering school, she was surprised to struggle in a course most of her counterparts considered easy: Engineering graphics. It’s a first-year course that sounds a bit like a glorified drawing class to a non-engineer.

The hardest part is orthogonal projection, a fundamental engineering task. Given a top, front, and side view of an object, engineers must be able to mentally synthesize two-dimensional representations into a three-dimensional object. It’s easy—if you’re good at what psychologists call mental rotation.

Sorby wasn’t. To her surprise and confusion, she found herself overwhelmed. “It was the first time I wasn’t able to do something in a classroom,” she says. “I didn’t realize I had poor spatial skills.”