Do women have neater handwriting than men?

Cristen Conger

Are girls primed to have superior penmanship?
Are girls primed to have superior penmanship?
Flickr/Pink Sherbet Photography

In April, Washington officially struck the word "penmanship" from any state statutes and replaced it with "handwriting" in an effort to use only gender-neutral language. To me, it's funny that "penmanship" is a male-gendered noun since there's a common assumption that women have neater handwriting than men. A lefty lady with chicken scratch-screwing handwriting, I've been particularly aware of that stereotype as I've never much fit the mold.

It also reminds me of being in tenth-grade chemistry class and fascinated by my jock desk neighbor's impeccably written notes.

"You write like a girl," I told him one day as a compliment (and probably also a poor attempt at flirting).

"Whatever," he responded, clearly unwelcome to such an uncool compliment (and probably also to a terribly awkward attempt at flirting).

In her book "Handwriting in America: A Cultural History," Tamara P. Thornton noted a 1910 handwriting expert's study on identifying sex differences in penmanship, which concluded that confident, original script is interpreted as masculine, whereas neat, conventional and circular are considered feminine. As a result, contemporary studies find that people are pretty good (usually better than 60 percent) at guessing whether a handwriting sample came from a man or a woman. In fact, a 2005 study out of the University of Leicester on sex hormones and handwriting noted that biological sex is the only consistent correlate with handwriting -- although I would argue that upon graduating from medical school, doctors are magically endowed with unintelligible-to-all-but-pharmacists penmanship. And since his-hers handwriting differences exist across cultures, could there be a biological explanation for them?

Writing for Parenting, Kristin Kane attributes handwriting disparities to the pace of brain hard-wiring. "During the early school years, when kids are learning to shape letters, the nerve fibers that control fine motor skills in boys' brains typically haven't matured as much as girls' have," Kane writes. Of course, boys' brain eventually catch up girls', but their stereotypically messier handwriting may be a holdover from that slight lag.

Those University of Leicester researchers turn the clock back beyond early childhood to prenatal development. Their theory maintains that exposure to female sex hormones in utero accounts for girls' typically neater handwriting. They implicated progesterone in particular as the chemical that, in the process of fostering more traditionally feminine characteristics including sociability and nurturance, guides girls' primmer penmanship.

Interestingly though, fetal exposure to testosterone doesn't appear to have the opposite effect of messing up handwriting; the prenatal hormone connection only held for females. And given that, it really does seem like good handwriting is more of a girl thing -- just not for this left-handed girl who maybe didn't get enough progesterone exposure in the womb (thanks a lot, mom!).