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Gender Stereotypes About Intelligence Start Surprisingly Young

It's a perplexing problem: from physics to philosophy, careers associated with brilliance seem to have a shortage of women. Employers and universities strive to make their programs more inclusive and diverse, but that may be way too late: new research suggests that girls already consider themselves to be less intelligent than boys by age 6.

The Disheartening Research

"When I was your age, there were lots of children at the kindergarten where I went. But there was one child who was really special. This child was really, really smart." So began the story researchers told the young children in their study. "This child learned things very quickly and could answer even the hardest questions from the teacher. This child was really, really smart." When the story was over, the researchers showed the young participants pictures of two boys and two girls, and asked them to identify which child the story was about.

For the study, which was published in a 2017 issue of the journal Science, the researchers recruited three groups of 32 children, half of them boys and half of them girls, aged 5, 6, and 7 respectively. Both boys and girls in the group of 5-year-olds tended to say that the character in the story was their own gender, suggesting that they associated brilliance with whatever gender they happened to be (score one for self esteem!). But among the 6 and 7-year-olds, it was very different. Boys still assumed that the smart child in the story was male, but girls did too. The same thing played out when kids were introduced to two games, one for "children who are really, really smart" and one for "children who try really hard." Girls and boys were equally interested in the games for hard-working children, but older girls were less interested in the games for smart children.

Why We May Be Asking The Wrong Question

What if it's not the girls who are losing their confidence, but boys who aren't learning humility? Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington told the Atlantic that in the study, there was a "gender arrogance" in all of the 5-year-olds that stuck with the boys as they got older, but not with the girls. "Do we want a society where each gender thinks they are smarter, or do we want one where boys and girls think the genders are equally smart? If the latter, then it may be boys' beliefs that we should try to change," Cheryan said. "Similarly, do we want a society where people would rather play the game that requires being 'being smart' over the one that requires 'hard work?' We as a society should figure out what we value before concluding that it is the girls we need to change."

Bonus fact: When they were asked to pick the child who got the best grades, rather than who was smartest, older girls were actually more likely to pick girls than older boys were to pick boys. Girls were almost universally recognized as better students, but that didn't extend to intelligence. Why is that? It's an ongoing mystery, but we may want to start with the parents.

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Written by Curiosity Staff February 11, 2017

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