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Girls believe brilliance is a male trait, research into gender stereotypes shows | Education

Girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait, according research into gender stereotypes.

The US-based study also found that, unlike boys, girls do not believe that achieving good grades in school is related to innate abilities.

Andrei Cimpian, a co-author of the research from New York University, said that the work highlights how even young children can absorb and be influenced by gender stereotypes – such as the idea that brilliance or giftedness is more common in men.

“Because these ideas are present at such an early age, they have so much time to affect the educational trajectories of boys and girls,” he said.

Writing in the journal Science, researchers from three US universities describe how they carried out a range of tests with 400 children, half of whom were girls, to probe the influence of gender stereotypes on children’s notions of intelligence and ability.

In the first test, a group of 96 boys and girls of ages five, six and seven, were read a story about a highly intelligent person, and were asked to guess the person’s gender. They were then presented with a series of pictures showing pairs of adults, some same-sex, some opposite sex, and were asked to pick which they thought was highly intelligent. Finally, the children were asked to match certain objects and traits, such as “being smart”, to pictures of men and women.

Taken together, the results reveal that girls of five years old are just as likely as boys to associate brilliance with their own gender. However, for those aged six and seven, girls were less likely than boys to make the association: among six year olds, boys chose people of their own gender as “really, really smart” 65% of the time while girls only selected their gender as brilliant 48% of the time.

The study then explored which gender was expected by children to do better academically at school. The team found that while girls aged five to seven were more likely than boys to associate their own gender with good grades, they did not link such achievements to brilliance.

“Already by this young age girls are discounting the evidence that is in front of their eyes and basing their ideas about who is really, really smart on other things,” said Cimpian.

The team also presented a group of six and seven year olds with two very similar games – one described as being for children who are “really, really smart” and the other for children who “try really, really hard”. The findings show that boys and girls were equally interested in the “hard” game, but girls were less interested than boys in the game for “smart” children.

Cimpian says he hopes the study will help in the development of interventions to prevent stereotypes from affecting women’s career choices, adding that previous research has suggested the low proportion of women in fields such as maths and physics could be down to brilliance being lauded as the key to success.

Nick Chambers, chief executive of the charity Education and Employers, which runs the Inspiring Women campaign, welcomed the research, saying that it emphasises the importance of primary school children being exposed to a wide range of role models.

Gemma Moss, professor of education at the University of Bristol who was not involved in the study, said that while the research highlights an important issue, it does not explore how the child’s perception of their own achievements – or their teacher’s perception of their abilities – might influence their attitudes.

But Christia Spears Brown, professor of psychology at Kentucky University and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue said that the research fits in with previous work, which found that parents and teachers attribute good grades in maths to hard work for girls, but to natural ability for boys.

“This study shows that girls are internalizing those cultural messages early in development, believing that, yes they may work hard, but they are not naturally really smart,” she said. “These beliefs can have important implications for what types of academic paths children choose to take, and shows why girls are opting out of majors like physics, despite earning high grades in school.”

Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, agreed. “If we are to facilitate a gender-balanced workforce of engineers, mathematicians and physicists in the future it is clear interventions at secondary school just aren’t going to be sufficient,” she said. “Parents, teachers and the media need to work much harder eradicating gender stereotypes in the way they talk about adults to children of all ages.”

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