Gender differences in early math ability?

Lisa Maruna, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Lisa Maruna, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

In a new study, Daniel Ansari and his colleagues investigate whether girls and boys differ in the basic numerical skills that provide the foundation for higher-level math.

As head of the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, Daniel Ansari is often asked at public events about a long-standing question: whether there are gender differences in children’s math ability.

While research from the 1970s and ’80s found that boys outperform girls in mathematics starting in elementary school, more recent large-scale studies have provided overwhelming support for gender similarities. However, much of the work that has demonstrated gender similarities in math abilities has focused on more advanced numerical and mathematical skills.

“These data provide further evidence that the stereotype of girls being inherently worse at math compared with boys is false.”

Ansari, motivated by widespread curiosity about this topic, decided to investigate gender similarities in basic numerical skills. Tasks that measure these skills include identifying the larger of two numbers, putting three numbers in proper order, and placing a number correctly on a number line.

“Skills such as number comparison and number line estimation have been found to be correlated with higher-level numerical and mathematical skills, such as performing calculations,” said Ansari. “In other words, individual differences in basic numerical skills in young children correlate with math achievement measured later on in life.”

Ansari and his colleagues re-analyzed a dataset from a previous study on basic numerical processing in an effort to identify potential effects of gender. They looked at the performance on several basic numerical tasks of 1,463 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 13. The results, published in February 2018 in the journal Child Development, strongly point to gender similarities for the majority of the tasks that were investigated.

Study participants included children in grades 1 through 6 from seven primary schools in the Netherlands. Performance scores on seven independent measures of basic numerical processing as well as measures of mental arithmetic were calculated, taking into account both error rates and response times for correct answer.

Although the authors found no evidence of gender differences for most tasks, there were two exceptions: Boys clearly outperformed girls on the number line estimation task, while girls outperformed boys on a counting task that required them to count the number of dots on the screen as quickly and accurately as possible. However, these gender differences varied by grade and showed no consistent pattern across the six grade levels examined.

“These data from elementary school children will be informative for teachers and parents, and could help to counteract the often expressed notion that girls find it harder than boys to learn math.”

“Some have argued that there might be innate differences between boys and girls when it comes to math,” Ansari said. “Our research suggests that this is unlikely, given that for most foundational (math-related) skills in elementary school children, we see no evidence of gender differences. These data provide further evidence that the stereotype of girls being inherently worse at math compared with boys is false.

We believe that these data from elementary school children will be informative for teachers and parents, and could help to counteract the often expressed notion that girls find it harder than boys to learn math.”

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