KIDS
January 31, 2017

"Really, Really Smart"

When 7-year-olds are asked to pick someone really smart, they choose differently than they did when they were five.

It’s no secret that far fewer young women choose to go into careers in science, technology and philosophy than young men do. And the reason for the discrepancy seems to be partly due to what girls think of themselves and their own capacities, not just what the outside world thinks. And it seems to start from a very early age.

“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 the author of a new study, Lin Bian, in a news release. “We wanted to know whether young children also endorse these stereotypes.”

It’s disturbing, but revealing, that these stereotypes start so young, especially considering that they seem to follow kids into young adulthood as they’re choosing fields in school and business.

Unfortunately, it turns out they do.

The series of studies looked first at kids’ attitudes about which gender is more likely to be “brilliant” or not. Researchers at New York University, the University of Illinois and Princeton University had kids, aged five, six and seven, listen to stories about a person who was “really, really smart” and then choose from pictures of two men and two women, who they thought was most like the lead character.

The five-year-olds tended to view their own gender as the brilliant one, but this changed in the six- and seven-year-olds: At these ages, girls were more likely to pick the male characters as the brilliant ones. And this was true across different socioeconomic groups, races and ethnicities.

A second part of the experiment asked six- and seven-year-olds to think about which of two games they’d rather play — one was said to be for “children who are really, really smart,” and the other was for “children who try really, really hard.” The kids were then asked several questions about each game, such as “Do you like this game, or do you not like it?” to gauge their interest. The girls were more likely to choose the game for kids who try hard, whereas the boys were more likely to like the game for smart kids.

Another part of the experiment, comparing five-year-olds to six-year-olds, found that this difference didn’t exist in the five-year-old kids, which suggests again that the association of smartness with males is something that develops around age six and up.

It’s disturbing, but revealing, that these stereotypes start so young, especially considering that they seem to follow kids into young adulthood as they’re choosing fields in school and business.

“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 one of the authors, Sarah-Jane Leslie.

More work will be needed to figure out how the stereotypes start — if kids are learning them from their parents, or from television, movies, advertising and even the news. In the meantime, if you are raising a girl, try to pay attention to the language you use to talk about gender, school subjects and careers; and remind her that she really can choose to go into whatever field she puts her mind to. Look for ways for her to meet women working in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.

The study is published in Science.

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