Gender biases in early number exposure to preschool-aged children

A paper by Alicia Chang, Catherine M. Sandhofer, and Christia S. Brown. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, December 2011 vol. 30 no. 4 440-450. Published online before print August 25, 2011, doi: 10.1177/0261927X11416207.


Despite dramatically narrowing gender gaps, women remain underrepresented in mathematics and math-related fields. Parents can shape expectations and interests, which may predict later differences in achievement and occupational choices. This study examines children’s early mathematical environments by observing the amount that mothers talk to their sons and daughters (mean age 22 months) about cardinal number, a basic precursor to mathematics. In analyses of naturalistic mother–child interactions from the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) database, boys received significantly more number-specific language input than girls. Greater amounts of early number-related talk may promote familiarity and liking for mathematical concepts, which may influence later preferences and career choices. Additionally, the stereotype of male dominance in math may be so pervasive that culturally prescribed gender roles may be unintentionally reinforced to very young children.

And this is from  a post in the NYT Blog, under the title Mothers Talk Less to Young Daughters About Math:

Even [when their children are] as young as 22 months, American parents draw boys’ attention to numerical concepts far more often than girls’. Indeed, parents speak to boys about number concepts twice as often as they do girls. For cardinal-numbers speech, in which a number is attached to an obvious noun reference — “Here are five raisins” or “Look at those two beds” — the difference was even larger. Mothers were three times more likely to use such formulations while talking to boys.

And this is from my collection of testimonies made by professional research mathematicians about their earliest exposure to mathematics (I collect such stories for my forthcoming book Shadows of the Truth):

My Mother told me the following story.  When I was about two and a half  a small flock of birds flew overhead.  I said: “Look, there are two and three birds”.  I didn’t yet know the number five but I understood simple counting.

What mattered was that Mother found this conversation significant.  And yes, of course, she was talking to a boy …


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