Reversing fortunes or content change? Gender gaps in math-related skill throughout childhood


Gender differences, Cognitive skills, Math, Reading, Early childhood, Differential item performance, Item difficulty, Gender stratification, Gender × item complexity interaction


Many scholars and policy makers of education have focused significant attention on male advantages in math skills during adolescence, but have often overlooked female advantages in math skills that emerge before school begins. As a way to explain this conflicting pattern, some scholars cite exposure to schooling as a reason why girls experience what some have termed girls’ “reversal of fortunes.” By using first-of-its-kind data I examine math-related skills with proscriptive data from early to late childhood using two nationally-representative data sets. Moving beyond standardized assessments of math skills, this study reconciles these two competing trends using subset measures. Far from a reversal of fortunes, girls excel in math skills that are less complex (i.e. counting, shape recognition) across childhood. Girls’ disadvantages in math emerge with content change—as item complexity increases over time (i.e. multiplication, division, and fractions). In contrast to standardized assessments of cognitive skills, gender gaps in item complexity may be more revealing for understanding the origins and development of gender stratification.

Original Publication Citation

Gibbs, Benjamin G. “Reversing Fortunes or Content Change? Gender Gaps in Math-Related Skill throughout Childhood.” Social Science Research 39:540-569

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Social Science Research




Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Associate Professor