Gender stereotypes live on: Research published in the journal Science found that girls starting at the age of 6 are less likely than boys of the same age to believe that girls are “really, really smart.”
Four studies — done by Lin Bian of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Sarah-Jane Leslie of Princeton University and Andrei Cimpian of New York University — looked at children from ages 5 to 7 to understand when girls start to believe this about members of their own gender — even though they know that girls get better grades in school. This research builds on earlier work bearing out the phenomenon, including a 2015 study, led by Leslie, showing that the stereotype that women are not naturally “brilliant” like men could explain their underrepresentation in academia.
The Science article describing the research, titled “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests,” says that girls at age 6 begin to avoid certain activities that they believe are only for the “really, really smart” children — boys.
The results suggest that children’s ideas about brilliance exhibit rapid changes over the period from ages 5 to 7. At 5, boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender to a similar extent. … Despite this strong tendency to view one’s gender in a positive light, girls aged 6 and 7 were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender. Thus, the “brilliance = males” stereotype may be familiar to, and endorsed by, children as young as 6. The stereotype associating females with being nice seems to follow a similar developmental trajectory.
The researchers also found that children’s beliefs about gender and brilliance shaped their interests, with girls at the age of 6 starting to choose games not considered to be for the really smart kids. They also found that the difference in boys’ vs. girls’ interest in the brilliance games was specifically determined “by their perceptions about brilliance, pinpointing these stereotyped perceptions (rather than modesty) as the underlying mechanism.” They concluded that the stereotype that boys are brilliant and girls aren’t — which is common in American society — may cause girls to narrow the careers they decide to pursue later in life.
In part of the research, children listened to a story about a “really, really smart” person and were asked to guess which of four adults — two men and two women — was the main character. Boys and girls ages 5 viewed their own gender positively but by 6, girls were much less likely than boys to link brilliance with their gender — and the differences were largely similar across socioeconomic and racial-ethnic backgrounds.
In a piece in the New York Times, two of the researchers, Cimpian and Leslie, wrote this:
What is to be done? Research provides some clues. The psychologist Carol Dweck has written that emphasizing the importance of learning and effort — rather than just innate ability — for success in any career might buffer girls against these stereotypes. The relevant stereotypes, already in place at the age of 6, seem to fixate on who is supposed to have innate ability. If innate ability is seen as secondary, then the power of these stereotypes is diminished. Other research indicates that providing girls with successful role models might similarly “inoculate” them, boosting their motivation and protecting them from the idea that they are not intellectually competitive. One study even suggested that witnessing a more equal distribution of household chores could help balance the career aspirations of boys and girls.
Here’s a piece that argues that another way for girls to counter these “boys=brilliance” stereotypes is to go to school with girls. This was written by Wendy L. Hill, head of the Agnes Irwin School — an all-girls, nonsectarian college preparatory day school for students from pre-K through 12, in Rosemont, Pa., and the Rappolt Professor Emerita of Neuroscience at Lafayette College, a private liberal arts college based in Easton, Pa.
By Wendy L. Hill
During a recent visit to the Franklin Institute’s Your Brain exhibit, which, as a neuroscientist, is a favorite of mine, I overheard a conversation between a mother and her two young children. I like to hear how parents explain neuroscience principles to their kids and so, I admit, I found myself eavesdropping on their conversation.
The mother attempted to answer their flurry of questions, and it was in this moment that I realized one child was a boy and the other was a girl — and not because the mother called her children by name. It was clear because of how she answered their questions: The boy was getting explanations about how neurotransmitters work, while the girl received simple directions on how to spin the wheel of the exhibit.
Psychologists have demonstrated that girls, even those as young as 1 to 3 years of age, often get short shrift in answers as compared with boys when visiting science museums. One can’t help but consider how these interactions can lead to gender stereotypes about science and cognitive style. These interactions and others no doubt contribute to the well-known gender stereotype that men are more likely to be “brilliant”— think Albert Einstein — than women.
Recent research by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian — published in the journal Science — has now demonstrated that the acquisition of the male=brilliant stereotype occurs very early in children. Up to age 5, there is no difference between girls and boys for which gender is more likely to be “really, really smart” — kid-speak for being “brilliant.”
The researchers found, however, that by age 6, girls are less likely than boys to think that female students can be brilliant. In elegant studies, Bian and her colleagues further demonstrate that the girls’ perceptions guided their decisions about which games they choose — avoiding ones categorized as for “really, really smart” kids — whereas boys were more attracted to these games. The researchers suggest the early development of the male=brilliant stereotype could eventually influence later career choices, given that societal messages reinforce that being an engineer or scientist is only reserved for those with the most rarefied intellect.
As the head of an all-girls school, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of schools the girls attended in the Science study. Cimpian, associate professor from New York University and one of the authors of the research, confirmed my assumption that all the children were from coed schools. It would be worthwhile to conduct a follow-up study that compares the development of the brilliant=male stereotype for girls from all-girls schools and those attending coed schools.
Why? Because there is evidence that being exposed to an all-girls education can decrease gender stereotypes for girls. Examples abound in my own school. One of my favorites is when we asked first-grade girls two years in a row to draw a scientist. All of them, without exception, drew a female scientist. This is in stark contrast with research findings that suggest that both girls and boys are more likely to draw a male when given a similar prompt.
This is remarkable, given the barrage of information about gender stereotypes children receive while they are not in school: from the media, from interactions with friends and families and from reading books and watching movies. The fact that girls schools can counteract this deluge speaks to the importance of having this “stereotype inoculation” occur as early as possible — for example, in elementary school.
The early development of the brilliant=male stereotype and the robust effect on the activities girls choose to pursue can be pretty depressing for parents trying to raise our daughters to believe in gender equality and instill in them the confidence that they have as much potential as our boys. Given the early internalization of the brilliant=male stereotype, it would be all too easy to feel defeated in our desire to empower our girls.
I have spent many years in the neuroscience lab, and have taught thousands of undergraduate students. The brain, I know, is a malleable organ. It continues to grow and develop throughout our lifetime, with new cells and pathways created in response to experience and effort. One way to inoculate girls against the stereotypes with which they will be inundated and which threaten to undermine their confidence is to let them benefit from an environment where their brilliance will be a matter of course.