By the age of 6, young girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant.
In our research, published today in the journal Science, we’ve found that girls as young as 6 start to believe that specific activities are “not for them” simply because they think they’re not smart enough. Our research suggests that American children are picking up on cultural stereotypes about brilliance at an early age. Unfortunately, these stereotypes suggest that girls aren’t as smart as boys.
If you try to think of a character in a book or show who is brilliant, you may come up with someone like Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” – or some other man. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and Lisa Simpson in “The Simpsons.” Most often, though, our cultural stereotypes promote the idea that being intellectually gifted is a male quality.
Even if parents do not explicitly endorse this stereotype, evidence suggests that it affects their hopes for their children. A 2014 report found that American parents Googled “Is my son a genius?” more than twice as often as they Googled “Is my daughter a genius?”
In contrast, questions about physical appearance were relatively more common for girls: Parents Googled “Is my daughter overweight?” about 70 percent more often than “Is my son overweight?”
As it happens, boys are slightly more likely to be overweight than girls. And, even though teachers – like parents – tend to assume that boys have greater “natural ability,” in reality girls do better in school.
Do little girls pick up on what their parents and teachers think about their smarts?
In our most recent research, with the psychologist Lin Bian as lead author, we studied 400 children ages 5 to 7, recruited over the last several years from a middle-class community near the University of Illinois, where one of us was working at the time.
For one study, each of 96 children (half boys, half girls) was told two stories about a person whose gender was not specified. They were told that one was about a “really, really smart” person, and the other was about a “really, really nice” person. Next, the children were shown four pictures (two males and two females) and were asked to guess which one might be the person in the story.
At age 5, boys and girls were equally likely to associate intelligence with their own gender, but that changed quickly. At age 6, girls were significantly less likely to associate brilliance with their own gender. Many of them picked a male character to identify the really smart person in the story, much as the boys did.
These stereotyped responses were given by both white and nonwhite children, and did not seem to vary as a function of parental education and income.
When we asked children to guess which of four children, two boys and two girls, would get the best grades in school, girls picked mostly other girls. In other words, the girls we tested were aware that girls do better in school than boys, but that didn’t change their ideas about who’s “smart.”
Our research also suggests that these stereotypes may have lasting effects. Once internalized, they begin to guide girls’ interests away from things that they begin to perceive as “not for them.”
In another part of the research, 64 children ages 6 and 7 (half boys, half girls) were shown two unfamiliar board games and told that they were either for children who are really smart or for children who try really hard. They were then asked four questions to measure their interest in the games.
When told that a game was for really smart children, the girls showed less interest and motivation than boys. This didn’t have anything to do with the game itself: When we described the exact same game as being for kids who try really hard, girls were just as interested in it as boys.
The difference between 6-year-old boys and girls appears to be related to their emerging stereotypes: We found that 5-year-old boys and girls — whose beliefs about brilliance were not yet differentiated — were equally interested in the game for really smart children.
In later life, these differences in children’s perceptions are likely to be consequential. In fact, in a paper we published in the journal Science in 2015, we found that women are underrepresented in fields thought to require brilliance – fields that include some of the most prestigious careers in our society, such as those in science and engineering. It may be that the roots of this underrepresentation stretch all the way back to childhood.
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.
Early and consistent exposure to such protective factors – and to the countless contributions made by women – may have the best chance of convincing little girls that they are, in fact, smart enough.