Girls as young as 6 years old are less likely than boys to label people of their own gender as “really, really smart,” according to new research that raises questions about how stereotypical notions of male and female mental abilities shape the paths students take in life.
Researchers said their experiments suggest that gender stereotypes about brainpower take root at a pivotal point in childhood — around first grade — and can profoundly influence academic and career choices long afterward.
Small differences in daily choices about games and activities, starting at age 6 or 7, could accumulate over years, leading to life-changing gender gaps in experience and knowledge.
“That might put girls at a disadvantage when pursuing fields that are perceived to rely on brilliance,” said Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at New York University who was one of the authors of the study. “That’s worrisome. These beliefs that seem to be present even in young children are the beginning of what might exclude girls from some of the most prestigious jobs in our society.”
Cimpian teamed on the study with Lin Bian, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, and Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton University.
The findings were based on a series of experiments conducted with hundreds of randomly chosen children in Illinois aged 5 to 7.
In one, children heard a story about a person who was “really, really smart” and then were shown images of four unfamiliar men and women. They were asked to guess which image represented the protagonist. Many of the 5-year-olds, girls and boys, chose an image corresponding to their own gender. But 6- and 7-year-old girls were significantly less likely than boys to do so.
In another experiment, children were presented with two games — one for players who are “really, really smart” and the other for those who “try really, really hard.” Questions about their interest in these games found no gender differences in the one geared toward persistence. But girls were less interested in the one that relied on smarts.
Cimpian said the findings were revealing about young male attitudes. “There’s also an element of boys being overconfident in their smarts,” he said.
The findings could help illuminate the challenge schools face in combating gender stereotypes, even though girls often outperform boys in school. Girls drop out of high school at a lower rate than boys. Women are more likely than men to enroll in college, and they earn more college degrees each year than men.
But educators, business leaders and policymakers are seeking to draw more women into higher-level studies in fields ranging from physics to philosophy. To varying degrees, stereotypes about brilliance, genius or brainpower can hinder girls and women in those and other disciplines.
Images of Albert Einstein or bearded ancient Greeks, reinforced by other notions on gender and braininess conveyed in media, can loom large in the minds of children, adolescents and young adults.
Andrew N. Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who has studied gender stereotypes, likened them to a disease that kids can “catch” through observing other people. He said the new study is “an excellent paper” that contributes to the quest for a cure.
“The stunning fact is that we are role models for our 6-year-olds,” he said. “They want to be ‘like us.’ If we hold stereotypes or biases, they are induced to hold them too. Our children are ‘taking data’ on how the adults in the culture act. Our stereotypes become their stereotypes.”