By the age of six, girls become less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender, according to a new study.
Even more disturbing is that they are more likely to avoid activities said to require brilliance, according to researchers at New York University, the University of Illinois, and Princeton University.
The research, led by Lin Bian, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, and New York University psychology professor Dr. Andrei Cimpian, demonstrates how early gender stereotypes take hold and points to the potential of their lifelong impact. Dr. Sarah-Jane Leslie, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, also contributed to the research.
“Not only do we see that girls just starting out in school are absorbing some of society’s stereotyped notions of brilliance, but these young girls are also choosing activities based on these stereotypes. This is heartbreaking,” said Cimpian, the study’s senior author.
“Our society tends to associate brilliance with men more than with women, and this notion pushes women away from jobs that are perceived to require brilliance,” said Bian. “We wanted to know whether young children also endorse these stereotypes.”
With this question in mind, the researchers tested children ranging in age from five to seven in a series of studies.
In one experiment, the children heard a story about a person who was “really, really smart” and were then asked to guess which of four unfamiliar adults — two men and two women — was the story’s protagonist.
They were also asked to guess which adult in a series of paired different-gender adults was “really, really smart.”
While the results showed both boys and girls aged five viewed their own gender positively, girls aged six and seven were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their gender. These age differences were largely similar across children of various socioeconomic and racial-ethnic backgrounds, according to the study’s findings.
A subsequent study asked whether these perceptions shape children’s interests.
A different group of boys and girls aged six and seven were introduced to two games — one described as for “children who are really, really smart” and the other for “children who try really, really hard.” The content and rules of the two games were otherwise very similar.
Children were then asked four questions to measure their interest in these games (e.g., “Do you like this game, or do you not like it?”). Girls were significantly less interested than boys in the game for smart children, the researchers discovered. However, there was no difference between the boys’ and girls’ interest in the game for hard-working children — a finding that illuminates the targeted nature of gender stereotyping, they say.
A final experiment compared five and six year-old boys’ and girls’ interest in games for smart children. The results showed no significant differences in interest between five year-old boys and girls, consistent with the absence of brilliance stereotypes at this age. However, by six, girls’ interest in the activities for smart children was again lower than that for boys.
“In earlier work, we found that adult women were less likely to receive higher degrees in fields thought to require ‘brilliance,’ and these new findings show that these stereotypes begin to impact girls’ choices at a heartbreakingly young age,” said Leslie.
The study, supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, was published in the journal Science.
Source: New York University