Are boys and girls born equal when it comes to math?

Women only hold 29% of STEM jobs in the U.S.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Here are some numbers to think about: college-educated women make up 50 percent of the adult workforce, yet they hold only 29 percent of the U.S. STEM jobs.

Now cognitive psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Rochester are studying whether boys are born with an ability to better understand math concepts.  

Social scientists studied 80 infants to measure a basic math skill called intuitive number sense. Researchers flashed sets of dots on a screen and recorded where the babies were looking.

“They can tell the difference between the number of dots that they see. They certainly can’t count them," said Dr. Melissa Libertus, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. "They don’t know that one is eight and one is 16. They know that there’s one quantity that’s larger than the other.” 

Researchers also tested older boys’ and girls’ abilities to count and to judge quantities using a tablet.

Altogether, the researchers looked at data from 500 kids, age six months to eight years.

"Are boys better than girls at these basic things? The short answer is no," Libertus said. "None of the areas that we tested did we see gender differences between boys and girls.” 

Researchers said it may be that parents and teachers perceive that boys are better than girls at math. Those stereotypes can shape girls’ math learning.

Researchers suggest parents give boys and girls equal access to toys, like puzzles and blocks. These are activities that can build math skills from the ground up. 

The cognitive psychologists with the Learning and Development Center at Pitt said that while children aren’t born with gender-specific math skills, it’s possible that differences emerge as girls get older due to the development of other cognitive skills, or from cultural stereotypes.