Are Women Bad Navigators?

Marilyn Monroe in a car.
American actress Marilyn Monroe leans over the back of the front seat of a car on the set of 'The Misfits,' (1960). (Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty Images)

Are women bad navigators? Society seems to believe this is true. Women are often the butt of comedy sets and the source of many complaints in highways and parking lots. Countless videos have been made and uploaded to YouTube starring women who are having a particularly difficult time driving or parking.

It is also not uncommon to hear a woman claim dependence on a GPS or to hear her say how lost she gets without it. Therefore, common culture (including the women themselves) certainly believes that women are bad navigators, but are they?

What Does Science Say?

In a research study done by Silverman et al. (2007), it was found that women are biologically evolved to be poor navigators. The paper states that in early human history, women were the gatherers of food around their homes.

Women became skilled at recognizing landmarks such as shrubs, rocks, or trees that would help lead them to a source of good supplies. On the other hand, men were the hunters that went far away to catch and kill animals. They therefore grew more experienced with directions and navigation.

Over time, these two separate roles led to specialized skills that appear to continue to manifest themselves today. Women are better at navigating in small areas with lots of familiar landmarks, while men are better at navigating over large distances.

This theory is confirmed in another study done by Choi and Silverman (2003), which states these separate sets of navigational skills were found present in young children given a series of navigation tests. Young girls were more inclined to perform better on memory games, while young boys were better at navigating comparatively long distances.

Finally, a study done by Montello et al. (1999) tested the navigational skills of adult men and women of various different backgrounds. They found that the men they tested, indeed, were better navigators than the women tested. Similar studies found similar results.  

Are Women Doomed to Be GPS-Dependent?

There is still hope for women. One particular study sheds an entirely different light on the results found by the previous experiments. Estes and Felker (2012) found that anxiety plays an extremely important role in the ability of a person to navigate. They also found that anxiety was far stronger in women than in men, having a direct influence on the performance in each gender’s navigational skills.

The study went on to explain how women could have more anxiety due to societal pressures. For example, starting at a young age, girls are often restricted in their exploration of their surroundings. They are kept at home for their “safety,” while young boys are allowed to roam farther. This could significantly hinder the development of a female’s navigational abilities simply because she is never able to practice developing her skills.

Society also constantly stereotypes women as bad navigators, leading to a greater anxiety and pressure to perform, as though navigation is suddenly a task insurmountable for the female sex. She is automatically set up for failure, for the pressure and anxiety lead to a poor performance. This only reinforces the stereotype.

So, Are Women Bad Navigators?

In conclusion, science seems to say that women are worse navigators than men. They are born with a different skill set that could simply stem from evolution. However, it remains questionable as to whether or not this separation of skills would continue to hold true if the anxiety of society was lifted and women were allowed to freely develop their navigational skills.

It is well known that biology and environment are responsible for the development of humans; if the environment surrounding a woman is changed, perhaps she could excel at navigation and even perform more successfully than her male counterparts.