No Natural Gender Differences in Children’s Earliest Quantitative Abilities

Kelsey Csumitta and Jessica Cantlon

Despite advances in gender equality within our society, men continue to be overrepresented in math-related careers. If there are “natural” differences in math ability between young boys and girls, these differences may impact later academic and career choices. Although some research has found that boys outperform girls on tests of math achievement in school, cultural influences may be contributing to these differences. Here we examined children’s quantitative processing abilities during early childhood prior to and during the first few years of formal school to provide data on whether and how early gender differences emerge in childhood. Over 400 children between 2 and 7 years were tested across two testing sites. First, we compared the performance of boys and girls on core numerosity perception during infancy and childhood and found that boys and girls performed similarly. Next, we compared boys and girls on verbal counting and knowledge of number word meanings during preschool. Boys and girls demonstrated similar levels of knowledge of number word meanings, but boys showed a slight advantage on culturally-learned memorization. Finally, we compared boys and girls on school-based tests of math achievement during the first few years of formal schooling. Boys and girls performed equally on mathematical concepts that draw on untrained, acquired knowledge, but boys performed slightly better on questions that rely on concepts that are formally taught in school. None of the differences between boys and girls approached one standard deviation. Overall the data show no intrinsic early childhood gender differences in quantitative reasoning, but some negligible gender differences in quantitative concepts that are culturally trained. This suggests that cultural influences may account for the gender discrepancy seen in math-related careers.