Lost girls?

A study says straight women suck at reading maps -- at least that's what the headline declares.

Published May 31, 2007 1:54PM (EDT)

Feeling lost or disoriented on the road? Don't know your vagina from your visor? Maybe that's because you're a straight woman behind the wheel!

Seriously, I love research that declares my inferiority in an area where I (with all due humility) tend to whup most men's butts. So I was smugly drawn to a new study from the University of Warwick in the U.K. that found that straight women really suck when it comes to reading maps.

Of course, a little closer look at the study revealed it's not as black and white as the newspaper articles declaring "Women Lost Reading Maps" would have you think. The study looked at two quasi-map-reading skills: "mental rotation" (rotating picture of three-dimensional objects) and judging the slope of a line. As Marcia Collaer, a behavioral neuroscientist at Middlebury College in Vermont, observes on the study Web site, "the link between the angles task and navigation ability is not backed up with empirical evidence, but it is worth considering." What's more, the study found that women outperform men in a different kind of spatial thinking: "spot the difference" skills (recognizing the placement of objects).

What's interesting about this particular gender study (unlike so many that break human beings into two simple groups) is that it looks at sexual orientation as well. It found that straight women have the worst map-reading ability of all the sexual orientations, followed by bisexual women, gay women, gay men, bisexual men and, finally, that pinnacle of self-navigation, the dude in the car who won't ask directions. I could come up with some juicy generalizations about locating G-spots and looking for monuments and how bedding down with certain partners affects your mind, but I won't even go there. The study doesn't simply look at ability across gender and sexual preference but at how abilities fare as we age. According to the study, women lose fewer abilities than men do as they age, but everyone's ability declines (sometimes precipitously) after we hit 30.

While the researchers don't go so far as to suggest straight-lady disorientation is all about our ungrounded hormones, they're obviously taking the well-worn path to support stereotypes with biological imperatives. In explanation they mention not only physiological inclination but also the fact that most boys are given cars and trains (rather than dolls and tea sets), which may put boys on the path to charting their own way.

My parents embodied this dichotomy so thoroughly that I can't resist a little armchair sociology. My father's an architect and always drove the car. He had the preternatural ability to drive into a city he'd never been in before and find his way just by the feel of things. By contrast, when my mother did venture out of her prescribed routines and, say, drove to the nearest by city by herself, she got absolutely lost with absolute consistency. Neither map nor directions nor signage could rescue her from the miasma that seemed to descend upon her consciousness. But my parents also embodied a lot of gender stereotypes (she was communicative, he wasn't; she was emotional, he was repressed), and I can't help seeing their strict job division according to geography as just that -- a division of labor that led to strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Somehow, I inherited (or learned) my dad's navigational abilities, but that also came with a decision to read my own maps and avoid my mother's dependence.

Interestingly, the only other time I've read extensively about mental rotation was in "Thinking in Pictures" -- Temple Grandin's strangely moving book about her exceptional visual thinking abilities and her autism. Of course, autism afflicts boys more than girls, a fact that led a guy I know who works with autistic kids to wonder if a certain kind of extreme masculinity -- the emotional detachment, the attention to abstraction -- was, in fact, a mild form of autism. So context is everything: What is a skill in one realm is a disability in another.

Speculative crap? Well, let's say anecdotal at best. But as long as women sit in the passenger seat watching the landmarks, we're going to have researchers studying their wondrous inability to find their way.

Worrying that I had an unrealistic idea of my own navigational abilities, I went ahead and took an online test. I was right: Judging the angle was a snap, but "spotting the difference" proved close to impossible. I guess I do think like a man. Now where's my pay raise?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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