By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor
High-level intellectual ability—commonly referred to as “brilliance”—is often associated with men and rarely with women. This gender stereotype is one of those that influence the career choices of many women, especially choices related to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Consequently, the perception of intellectual brilliance appears to influence the distribution of women and men in different academic disciplines.
A couple of years ago, a team of researchers carried out a study to find out at what age the “brilliance stereotype” emerges. For the study, the researchers first tested children ranging from 5 to 7 years. These children were told a story about a person (the protagonist) who was “really, really smart.” The children were then asked to guess who the protagonist of the story was—they could choose among four unfamiliar adults (2 men and 2 women). The children were also asked to guess which adult in a series of paired adults of different gender was “really, really smart.”
The researchers published the results of their study (Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests) in the scientific journal Science in 2017. Lin Bian, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “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. We wanted to know whether young children also endorse these stereotypes.”
The study results show that both boys and girls aged 5 viewed their own gender positively. However, girls aged 6 and 7 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.
Next, the researchers tested a different group of boys and girls aged 6 and 7 to find out whether or not perceptions about brilliance shape children’s interests. Children were introduced to two games. One of the two games was described as for “children who are really, really smart,” whereas the other game was described as for “children who try really, really hard”—however, the content and rules of two games were very similar. Children were then asked questions to measure their interest in the two games—for example, “Do you like this game, or do you not like it?”. Girls were significantly less interested than boys in the game for the “children who are really, really smart.”. However, there was no difference in the interest of boys and girls in the game for “children who try really, really hard.”
Lastly, the researchers compared the interest of boys and girls aged 5 and 6 in games for smart children. The results show that at age 5 there are not significant differences in interest between boys and girls. In contrast, at age 6, girls’ interest in the activities for smart children was lower than the interest of boys.
In a comment to the study, Wendy L. Hill wrote in The Washington Post: “The early development of the brilliant=male stereotype and the robust effect on the activities girls choose to pursue can be pretty depressing for parents trying to raise our daughters to believe in gender equality and instill in them the confidence that they have as much potential as our boys. Given the early internalization of the brilliant=male stereotype, it would be all too easy to feel defeated in our desire to empower our girls. I have spent many years in the neuroscience lab, and have taught thousands of undergraduate students. The brain, I know, is a malleable organ. It continues to grow and develop throughout our lifetime, with new cells and pathways created in response to experience and effort. One way to inoculate girls against the stereotypes with which they will be inundated and which threaten to undermine their confidence is to let them benefit from an environment where their brilliance will be a matter of course.”
Sarah-Jane Leslie, a study co-author, said: “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.”
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