The real reason men are better navigators than women

24 : 08 : 2018 Gender : Identity : Gender Inequality

A recent study found that women cannot navigate as well as men but Martin Raymond, editor-in-chief of LS:N Global, says chromosomes have nothing to do with it.

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Many headlines have presented these findings with an obvious ‘told you so’ glee that hints at a far more dangerous supposition; that a woman’s inability to navigate as efficiently proves that she is unequal.

Martin Raymond, editor-in-chief, LS:N Global

Men are better navigators than women. It's official. And when it comes to choosing a particular route, men are better at taking shortcuts, risks, and using landmarks to map their journey, while women, yes you’ve guessed it, are risk averse.

Or so say a batch of similar stories that appeared in the wake of a recent University of California study called Sex Differences in Navigation Strategy and Efficiency. A more extensive piece of research into the causes and consequences of dementia, involving four million men and women globally, pretty much concludes the same thing: women, it seems, are just not very good at navigating.

What a relief that must be to men generally, and some justification to places like Saudi Arabia where women have long been kept away from the wheel without the reassuring presence of a man to guide and chaperone them along.

Regardless of gender, people from wealthier countries did better than those from poorer ones.

Certainly, that’s how many of the headlines I’ve been reading about these surveys have presented their respective findings, while many more do so with an obvious ‘told you so’ glee that hints at a far more dangerous supposition; that a woman’s inability to navigate her way from A to B as efficiently as a man proves that she is unequal. No, it doesn’t say that, but that’s how it’s reported to me by cab drivers, a chap I met in the pub, another man who describes himself as ‘reasonable’, and very much in favour of ‘ladies (I know!) running soft skill businesses, while leaving the more complex, risk-friendly ones to the lads’. You get the gist.

Unfortunately, they didn’t. As usual, boys being boys (and perhaps in the spirit of the above research) a lot of shortcuts were taken in their leaps of logic to prove that current shifts in masculinity have little or nothing to do real men, or their supposed superiority.

However, when you dig into the University of California’s findings, a more nuanced, and far more interesting picture emerges. When data from the second survey was matched with data from The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, researchers noted that women from countries where equality levels were higher scored equally as well as men in navigation tests.

More pointedly, where higher inequality existed, this was reflected in how women scored in terms of their navigational prowess. Similarly, regardless of gender, people from wealthier countries did better than those from poorer ones, while Scandinavians, due perhaps to the so-called ‘Viking gene’, faired the best, regardless of gender.

The researchers used gaming software, which more men reported being familiar with and using more than their female counterparts.

Findings from the University of California’s work have also being heavily caveated by its own research team, who point out that they used gaming software to reach their conclusions, which more men reported being familiar with and using more than their female counterparts. This, they believed, made men risk-friendly, and more likely to take short-cuts – attributes that may be useful in gaming, but not when it comes to driving in real life, or navigating how we live, work or play.

So, far from being two pieces of research that reinforce old stereotypes, each reminds us of the complex nature of gender, and how, inevitably, it is still very much informed by accepted views of culture, access to education, healthcare and fiscal equality. How we navigate and define gender itself – as much as how we navigate our roads, or take risks behind the wheel.

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