Sexist attitudes about smarts may emerge by first grade

Young girls are less likely than boys to believe in the genius of their own gender

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Kids as young as six are more likely to think that brilliance is associated with boys, a new study finds.


Girls are less likely than boys to think that women have genius potential, a new study finds. And that stereotype can show up in kids as young as six. Girls also are less likely than boys to play a game if they’re told it is for “really, really smart” people. The findings suggest that combating gender stereotypes has to start as early as kindergarten.

A stereotype is a commonly held belief, but one that isn’t necessarily true. One common stereotype holds that men are more likely to be geniuses than are women. There are no data to prove this. Yet some people still think it is true.

This stereotype can have impacts. For instance, researchers in some fields, such as philosophy and physics, tend to believe that genius is important in their work. Those in many other areas, such as biology and art history, usually say that hard work is what moves someone ahead. It turns out that these beliefs also affect how many women end up in such fields. Areas of research where people tend to believe genius is important also tend to have more men. Those that emphasize hard work tend towards having equal numbers of men and women. That’s what Andrei Cimpian found in a 2015 study where he interviewed men and women working in universities. He’s a psychologist — someone who studies how people behave — at New York University in New York City.

Of course, universities are full of adults. But the stereotypes held by those adults probably formed much earlier. Cimpian and his colleagues, Lin Bian and Sarah-Jane Leslie, began to wonder just how early. Bian is a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Leslie is a philosopher — someone who studies ideas about life, the universe and everything — at Princeton University in New Jersey.

The researchers surveyed 400 Illinois children between the ages of five and seven. The youngest had not yet started kindergarten. The oldest were in second grade. These early years are an important time for kids, Bian explains. Walking into a big classroom for the first time can overwhelm kids. It’s a new environment, with new teachers and new types of social interactions. Suddenly kids encounter lots of new ideas, including what others their age might think.

Bian, Cimpian and Leslie gave some of the kids a story about a person who was “really, really smart.” (The researchers used the phrase “really, really smart” as a kid-friendly stand-in for brilliant or genius.) Then they asked: Was that person a man or a woman? They also asked the kids to look at groups of men and women and pick which were likely to be “really, really smart.” Another group of kids were asked whether boys or girls were more likely to get better grades.

Five-year-old boys and girls were more likely to think their own gender was “really, really smart.” That’s expected, said Cimpian. Young children tend to think their own gender is better at most things.

By age six and seven, girls give their own gender lower odds of being a genius than boys do. Differences like these might lead girls to opt out of studying subjects where they think they will need brilliance to get ahead.kiankhoon/iStockphoto

But this pattern changed over time. By age seven, boys still were overconfident about their gender’s genius. But girls’ confidence in their own’s  began to fall. By age seven, girls no longer thought women were more likely to be “really, really smart.” Now they thought they were only as likely to be so as were men.

Girls are more likely to get better grades, the girls said. In fact, girls do tend to get better grades than boys at this age. Girls also tend to be better behaved in school. But the girls who were surveyed did not link good grades with super smarts.

Unlike boys, girls also became less interested in games for budding geniuses. When they were offered a game and told it was for people who were “really, really smart,” six- and seven-year-old girls weren’t as interested as when they heard it was for people who “worked really, really hard.”

Bian, Cimpian and Leslie published their results January 27 in Science.

How kids’ stereotypes grow up

The differences between the boys and girls might not seem that big. Boys were overconfident by age six or seven, sure. But girls only gave their own gender equal odds of being brilliant. That small loss in confidence “might over time push small decisions,” Cimpian now worries.

For instance, a girl might choose not to take an advanced math class for fear of not doing well. Or she might not apply to a science camp. Such little decisions, made over and over, could affect how well a girl does in school — especially in college, Cimpian suspects. Not taking those extra math classes or attending science camps might mean some girls will need catching up later to perform as well as the boys who had taken advantage of such opportunities.

Textbooks might also reinforce for girls that men are more likely to be brilliant because these materials tend to focus on achievements by men, explains Alice Eagly. She’s a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was not involved in the study. Most geniuses that kids learn about in school — such as Albert Einstein or Issac Newton — tend to be male. Even in an art museum, most paintings might have been produced by men. History class emphasizes stories of famous leaders. These, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, again tend to be male. Even when women are cited, men usually outnumber them by a wide margin.

“If we don’t want [kids] to think that males are more brilliant, we have to have equal [shares] of men and women at very high levels of accomplishment,” Eagly argues. We can’t fix stereotypes in the minds of people, she says. “We have to fix our world.” But, she admits, that’s a tough thing to do. Cultures don’t change overnight. And women today still tend to be underrepresented in science, politics and other areas.

More and more women are heading to the top in fields such as politics, business and science. But it may be a long time until women are equally represented among, say, Nobel Prize winners or people working in a school’s math department. For now, girls should not let worries about brilliance get them down, Bian says. The important thing, she notes, is to keep in mind that hard work really is more important for success than is genius —both for boys and for girls. “Everyone does better when hard work is emphasized as the key to success,” she says.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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