Human cooperation varies both across and within societies, and developmental studies can inform our understanding of the sources of both kinds of variation. One key candidate for explaining within-society variation in cooperative behaviour is gender, but we know little about whether gender differences in cooperation take root early in ontogeny or emerge similarly across diverse societies. Here, we explore two existing cross-cultural datasets of 4- to 15-year-old children's preferences for equality in experimental tasks measuring prosociality (14 societies) and fairness (seven societies), and we look for evidence of (i) widespread gender differences in the development of cooperation, and (ii) substantial societal variation in gender differences. This cross-cultural approach is crucial for revealing universal human gender differences in the development of cooperation, and it helps answer recent calls for greater cultural diversity in the study of human development. We find that gender has little impact on the development of prosociality and fairness within these datasets, and we do not find much evidence for substantial societal variation in gender differences. We discuss the implications of these findings for our knowledge about the nature and origin of gender differences in cooperation, and for future research attempting to study human development using diverse cultural samples.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Cooperation among women: evolutionary and cross-cultural perspectives’.