The analysis of sex differences in cognitive abilities is largely confusing because these differences are masked by the pervasive influence of the general factor of intelligence (g). In this study a battery of five reasoning tests (abstract [AR], numerical [NR], verbal [VR], mechanical [MR], and spatial [SR]) was completed by a sample of 3233 young and old adolescents representative of the population. Using a latent variable approach, mean differences on the general factor were estimated after examining measurement invariance. Results show that the difference, favoring boys in latent g increases with age from two to four IQ points. Further, boys outperform girls in all the subtests and the observed differences were generally explained by g. However, mechanical reasoning is a systematic and strong exception to this finding. For the young adolescents, the observed difference in MR is equivalent to 10 IQ points, and this difference increases to 13 IQ points for the old adolescents. Only 1 (young) or 2 (old) IQ points of the sex difference in MR can be accounted for by g. The findings suggest that the persistent – and usually neglected average large advantage of boys in mechanical reasoning (MR) — orthogonal to g – might be behind their higher presence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. A new look at this relevant social issue is proposed in this study.
► Sex differences in cognition are masked by the general factor of intelligence (g). ► The difference in favoring boys increases across adolescence up to 4 IQ points. ► Boys show an advantage in mechanical reasoning irrespective of latent g. ► This advantage might help to understand sex discrepancies in STEM disciplines.