Girls as young as six don’t think they are as smart as boys, according to a new study from Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois.
Bian designed two experiments in which she tested 240 boys and girls ages five through seven to determine when children begin to think that extreme intelligence is a male trait.
First, Bian told the children a story about a person who is “really, really smart,” and who can perform tasks more quickly and better than everyone else. This person represented a genius. Then, to test gender perception for this “genius,” she showed children a picture of men and women, asking the child to identify which one was the smart person from the story.
At 5 years old, boys and girls both thought the smart person in the story matched their own gender. Beyond age 5, boys were more likely to continue to believe their gender was smarter, while girls’ confidence in their own gender’s intelligence faltered.
For a second test, Bian invited boys and girls to play a game that she told each child was meant for “really, really smart” children, and another for “really, really hard-working” children. In this case, girls older than age 5 were less likely to identify themselves as highly intelligent and therefore chose not to play the game. However, girls were more likely to self-identify as hard-working.
One of the most tragic aspects of the study’s results is that girls, in fact, do outperform boys in school, especially at younger ages. In Bian’s study, girls knew this. Bian showed children pictures of boys and girls, and asked each to pick which gender they thought got better grades. More boys and girls chose girls as the ones who got the best grades.
More research is needed, but Bian has a hunch that the stereotypes parents carry may play a role in girls’ doubt of their own brilliance.
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While her study paints a bleak picture for gender stereotypes, there is a silver lining.
The realization that girls can be influenced at such a young age brings the world a little closer to understanding root causes of gender bias in education. It also presents a chance to start programs and awareness that empower girls earlier in their lives, or teach both genders to equally value intelligence and hard work.
More examples of female scientists in classrooms could also help equal out gender stereotypes according to Sarah Eddy, a professor of Biological Sciences at Florida International University.
“We have to be more deliberate about presenting examples of brilliant women to girls and boys as young as five to help them avoid developing this association,” Eddy told The Atlantic.