Why Many Girls Are Less Likely to Have Confidence in Their Intelligence by the Age of 6

Girls are socialized early with negative gender attributions. Ideas of gender specific toys, games and household chores begin in the home. Media shapes how girls view beauty and body image. Girls also start to think less of their intellectual abilities at an early age too, according to a new Science study. That shift happens for girls at the young age of six years old.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Psychology phD student Lin Bian and New York University psychologist Andrei Cimpian collaborated on this study to find out exactly when the stereotyping of brilliance begins. For the study nearly 200 children listened to a story that described a “really, really smart” protagonist. Afterward they were asked to guess the gender of the protagonist. No hints about the protagonist’s gender were in the story. The study found that boys and girls around age five chose their own gender, but by age six and seven that began to shift. Boys still guessed that the “really, really smart” protagonist was male, but the girls also guessed the protagonist was male.

“It’s an age when there’s a lot of social learning going on,” Cimpian says about why they focused on five- to seven-year-olds.

In another exercise for the study 200 more children were presented with invented games. From the Smithsonian magazine:

Another task presented two invented games to 200 more children, with one being described as for children who are “really, really smart,” while the other was said to be for kids who “try really, really hard.” At age 5, girls and boys showed no significant difference in which game they were most interested in. But again, by ages 6 and 7, girls were much more likely than boys to gravitate to the game for children who try hard.

(Interestingly, however, when the girls and boys were asked to guess who made the best grades from a group of girls and boys, the children of all ages guessed their own gender. In other words, the children viewed achievement differently from brilliance. “It speaks to how disconnected from objective evidence these stereotypes are,” Cimpian says.)

As we stated earlier, gender stereotyping happens in the household. Cimpian says parents play a large role whether it’s the language they use or their own biases. “Even though parents may not explicitly endorse these stereotypes, they’re nevertheless part of this culture,” he says.

These stereotypes stay with girls for decades if not their entire lives. In another study Cimpian and Bian collaborated on (the two have worked on several together), the survey examined more than 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com and found that students were more likely to use words like “brilliant” and “genius” to describe their professors in fields that had fewer women and fewer black professors (for example, math, philosophy, physics). In 2015, Cimpian and his colleagues found that a likely reason is that women discourage themselves from entering these fields by telling themselves men are able to better succeed in them.

“Evidence for this association is all around us,” Bian says, pointing to the plethora of TV shows depicting male “genius” protagonists compared to shows with female protagonists. “If we want to change young people’s minds and make things more equitable for girls, we really need to know when this problematic stereotype first emerges.”

These prevailing  stereotypes about brilliance are unfortunate because they’re wrong. In fact, girls tend to do better in school and are more likely to have a college degree. Black women specifically are the highest educated demographic in the country.

It’s a lot of work not to socialize children — boys and girls — in a patriarchal society. But with more parents who have access to information parents didn’t have 20 years ago a shift can happen.


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