Gender Differences on a Motor-Skills Task

  • Category 1: In-class active learning
  • Chapter objective 12:
    • Discuss gender similarities and differences in psychological traits such as aggression, social power, and social connectedness.
  • Purpose:  Demonstrate common sex differences.  
  • 25 - 30 minutes ??


Classroom Exercise: Gender Differences on a Motor-Skills Task

Jennifer Knight, Michelle Hebl, and Miriam Mendoza of Rice University provide a wonderful classroom exercise using toys to stimulate discussion of gender differences. You will need two Barbie dolls and clothes and six Trans­former toys to conduct the activity.


Begin by recruiting six male and six female volunteers. Ask three of the males and three of the females to wait outside the classroom until they are called back in. Then have the remaining three males and females form two lines of same-sex teams to participate in a race. Give a Transformer toy to each student along with a picture of what the toy will look like after it is manipulated. The students are to perform the task in sequence such that the second member of the team cannot begin the task until the first member has successfully transformed his or her toy, and so on. The team to have all three members complete the task first wins. Time the two teams; encourage the class to cheer their favorites on. After both teams have completed the task, invite the remaining six volunteers back into class.


This time, each team receives a Barbie doll, which they are to dress as quickly as possible. Each person on a team is responsible for one item of clothing (i.e., dress, jacket, or shoes). Again, the audience may applaud and support their favorite team as you time the race.


The authors report that men were able to complete the stereotypical male Transformer task more quickly than women (123 seconds versus 200 seconds), whereas the women were able to successfully complete the stereotypical feminine Barbie task more quickly than men (a whopping 85 seconds versus 300 seconds).


Engaging your class in an open-ended discussion about the exercise will lead to a consideration of central issues in the literature on gender differences. You might begin by noting that performance on motor-skill tasks often depends on the type and gender stereotypicality of the task. Ask your students to generate hypotheses about why the gender differences on the task might occur.


Consistent with gender socialization theory, some students may note that the difference may be because in childhood boys and girls play different games and with different types of toys. Other students may suggest that women excel in tasks involving fine motor skills (e.g., the Barbie task) due to smaller finger sizes. Similarly, men’s stronger visual-spatial aptitude might translate into better performance with Transformer toys. Still others may argue that students may feel evaluation concern that is based on a negative stereotype (males on the Barbie task; females on the Transformer task). This concern may interfere with their performance (as discussed in relation to the concept of stereotype threat, which is covered in Chapter 9). Finally, students may indicate that social desirability is a factor—e.g., males may not have wanted to “succeed” on a female-typed task, and females may not have wanted to “succeed” on a male-typed task.


In anticipation of this chapter’s discussion of “The Nurture of Gender,” you might ask your class why they automatically cheered for the team members who were of their own sex. Might such ingroup bias implicitly encourage greater division and stereotyping of men and women?

Knight, J. L., Hebl, M. R., Mendoza, M. (2004). Toy story: Illustrating gender differences in a motor skills task. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 101–103.