Intellectual Brilliance and Gender Stereotypes: Influence on Children’s Interests

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.”

Copyright © 2016-2019 Forever Leaders.

11 comments

  1. This seems rather conclusive in its exposition. The data, findings, and methods all seem to be very reliable and valid. From there, the question falls on the actions (or inactions) that we, as members of this very same culture, will produce. While children are very impressionable, it would be difficult to propogate egalitarian ideals upon each and every single child when, especially, their environment is nowhere near controlled.

    Within this age of instantaneous delivery of ideas, nothing short of changing the entire narrative of intelligence seems likely to make a large impact on the current generations and the ones that continue to follow. In other words, it is necessary for women to prove otherwise: show the world that women are more than capable of doing the very same jobs at men, all the while boasting different skillets and perspectives.

    Action is necessary to prove such. Action is what young girls miss. Action through positive media, a greater, mutual understanding of humanistic values, and a social shift in misogynistic ideals is vital. As women, it is our role to help propagate the truth: women are just as capable as anyone else. This is capable of being done not only through a STEM field, but anywhere, too; however, it is vital that the women who represent their field do so in a manner in which young girls will feel equally empowered. A meteorologist need but be accurate, a manager need but be effective, and a poet need but be effective. Therefore, the difficulties lend themselves into how women can pave, not stride in heels, their way to a culture more suitable to all genders, people, and ages.

    Here’s a question and also a call to action: what can you do, as a women or as a supporter of social equality, to change the categorically incorrect and misleading culture of feminine expression?

  2. Although very sad and upsetting, it is not surprising to me that children associate brilliance with the male gender at such a young age; it is a result of the messages we internalize in primary school. The blog post explains that at age 5, when most children start kindergarten, they view their gender positively. But by ages 6 and 7, when most children have been in school for one or two years, there is a shift toward viewing males as the brilliant gender. Before I started school, my mother made sure I knew how to read, write, and do basic math; if I was asked at age 5 whether a man or woman was brilliant, I believe wholeheartedly that I would choose the woman, as most girls that age did. But after a couple of years of learning almost exclusively about males in history, science, English, and even math, I would probably feel differently, just as the children in the experiment did. Thus, this experiment reflects the importance of representation. If children were taught more about the accomplishments of females in school, it is likely that they would view them as brilliant. Additionally, young girls are often praised for being quiet and polite while boys are praised for being smart. I vividly recall this happening in my kindergarten class when my teacher addressed the entire class, saying “isn’t Indiya so quiet? She always does her work and doesn’t talk to anyone.” As a child, I was proud to hear this and thought of it as a compliment. I was not sure how to feel when a few moments later, my teacher held up a male classmate’s worksheet, telling the class that we should all be doing our work like his and that he was so smart. His worksheet looked just like mine, yet my teacher did not acknowledge it. There were countless moments like this throughout my early school years, when my teachers complimented my quietness but rarely my intelligence. I believe that by age 6 or 7, these experiences would have prompted me and countless other girls who had common experiences to be more interested in a game for “children who try really, really hard” rather than “children who are really, really smart.” In order for young girls to feel confident in pursuing careers in STEM, women need to be better represented in their schooling. Also, girls should be complimented for their intelligence as much as boys because if not, the stereotype that boys are smarter is propagated, thereby raising the likelihood of stereotype threat and barring them from recognizing their potential “fields thought to require brilliance.”

  3. I think that these studies are really interesting because no one is telling these children specifically that men are smarter than women. These children see that the people they’re studying about are male, the people in history making the big decisions in government are male, the people discovering all the scientific theories were male, the people that were writing all the books we had to read were male. Children pick up on the subtleties that we don’t think are important. A way to combat this is to study women in science, math, history, etc. Another way to combat this is to also encourage girls in class to stand out with their work. I remember being in kindergarten and getting in trouble for finishing my work early and talking to my friends. This can severely hold girls back when they reach middle and high school. I’m in college now and this is still something I remember and I believe it’s something that holds me back from speaking up in class now. I have nephews and something that I always try to do is encourage them in their studies. I also have a niece and I plan to push her harder than I push my nephews. This is because it’ll be hard to change the school district institution overnight, but it is possible to start her off on a better foot that the rest of her classmates.

    • You bring up an excellent point about the root cause of these children altering their opinion regarding their own brilliance being associated with gender because they are picking up on societal cues. It’s important to recognize that their opinion sways around this young age because the majority of the authors, lawmakers, and/or those in power that they are exposed to are male. Once we’ve acknowledged this, it’s time to find an applicable, effective solution to tackle this phenomenon. Like you suggested, a good place to start would to study more women leading impactful lives across STEM, history, government, etc. In particular, an emphasis on uplifting minority and WOC is crucial to provide diverse roll models for all. Since this trend begins around 5-6 years old, providing a platform to showcase the exceptional women that have come before us can make all the difference. Therefore, I’m grateful to be apart of a small platform: Toucan Code, an interactive workbook-website targeted towards K-3rd grade computational education which highlights a team of diverse, brilliant women that I hope young girls can look up to and relate to a character that may not always be on the cover of every children’s book. It’s my small step in the right direction towards positively impacting these girls, and I appreciate you sharing your story and encouragement of your nephews and nieces. It has encouraged me to continue to push for the brilliant little girls of the next generation.

  4. It’s weird because when I think back to myself when I was six years old, I was super competitive in school. I know I would have been drawn to the “children who are really really smart” game because I truly believed I was a smart kid. It wasn’t until fifth grade that I started questioning my intelligence because some students were in advanced placement classes, and I was not one of them.
    Looking back, I think it’s important for us to remind younger children that they can all be brilliant. Personally, I’ve never felt like I was at a disadvantage because of my gender, but I have felt discriminated against due to my race. I just finished interviewing at grad schools for genetic counseling, and one thing I enjoy about the field is that it’s mostly women. However, at 4 out of the 5 interviews I had, I was the only non-white female. The reason I bring this up is because I know that there is a lot of work to be done in reminding young women that they can be brilliant, but we have to extend this reminder to minority girls too.

  5. Socialization is one of the manifest functions of the education system. However, gender inequalities are one of the unintended consequences of this function. Young girls are encouraged to pursue careers in humanities, teaching, and allied health cares such as nursing. On the contrary, young boys are encouraged to seek more masculine professions in engineering, law, computer science, and business. As children progress through the education system, they begin to internalize these stereotypes and apply them to additional areas of their life. Girls strive to join more feminine sports like cheerleading, dance, and gymnastics while boys play sports like football, wrestling, and baseball. Additionally, girls gravitate towards courses like home economics, art, and journalism while boys gravitate towards courses like computer, woodshop, and technology.

  6. In a society where the opinions and ideas of men are valued above women, it is not hard to believe that women, especially young girls, have been conditioned to believe that the “smart” and “difficult” things or positions are strictly reserved and suitable for men. From birth, young women are conditioned to think about one thing: family. They are not actively taught to pursue an interest in chemistry, physics, law, or mathematics; instead, they are taught to build a foundation for family and pursue careers paths that enable them to exhibit their maternal instincts such as teaching or nursing. In some countries, women are shunned for rejecting the idea that creating a family is all that they are useful for. In an article I’ve previously read, admissions purposefully failed female applicants, so that the male applicants could have a better chance of admittance. The question is, why would anybody go as far to fail female applicants to favor male applicants? What does this suggest about the society that we live? How can we promote change, so that this never happens again? Another idea that I agree was perfectly stated by Wendy Hill, “ 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.” If we can create more programs like Girls Who Code and in fields such as medicine, engineering, law, mathematics, I believe that we can overcome this stereotype and eventually make it a norm for young girls to think of themselves and other females as intelligence and innovative.

  7. In my opinion, the general consensus of the study which was that girls often feel as if they are not as smart enough as boys was not a surprise to me. However, when girls were experiencing these thoughts at the young age of 6 was surprising to me. I assume that I did not experience this at that age because I have a mother who has an advanced degree and I often saw her working in her science field. For my first few years of elementary school, I was more outspoken when I knew an answer to a question. I always participated even if I knew I was not correct. However, when I changed schools at the age of 9, I began to have different feelings about what being smart meant. I noticed that both parents and teachers complement girls differently when compared to boys. Often boys were complemented for being smart and brave, while girls were complemented on aesthetics. I was also aware that more boys were involved in clubs that were analytical like chess and quiz bowl. In these after school activities, out of 20 students, around 3 of them were girls. Since the study exposed the changes in developmental behaviors that begin in girls and boys just after the age of 5, I would like to know how schools will become notified of these scientific studies. When they are, what changes will they implement in order to ensure that girls involved in STEM activities feel inclusion?

    • You bring up a good point about boys being involved in more afterschool clubs, especially if they are related to analytics. That also happened in my school. Adding on to your question of what the changes should be to encourage more young girls to be involved in STEM, should outside organizations also try to intervene? I know many schools are underfunded/short staffed, so they do not have the funds and/or resources to help girls be exposed to STEM. This is where outside organizations play a key role to 1. Educate the school’s faculty on how to treat students more equally and 2. Provide opportunities for girls to participate in STEM activities.

  8. After reading about the study results that talked about how girls aged 6 and 7 were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their gender, I was surprised. One of the things that surprised me about it was how young girls’ view of brilliance associated with gender changed so quickly from age 5 to age 6. I believe that it is important to continue to encourage young boys and girls that they are all brilliant, whether they are brilliant in an academic way or an artistic/creative way. Also, teaching them about some of the strong and smart women in the world today can help set examples for the young girls. It’s like a domino effect. If young girls don’t believe that they are just as smart as boys, then in the future they might feel discouraged and scared that they are not good enough to pursue high positions or to be in a career field that is male dominated. I remember in elementary school that all the boys would want to do Math and Science, while us girls would do creative writing instead. We didn’t think we were “really, really smart” to do those subjects, even though we were interested in them. Having more programs that are like the WomenLead Program is one way to help change the views of gender stereotyping.

  9. I have thought a lot about how I was shaped to be “feminine”. Why did I choose a career field where the vast majority is female? Out of all sciences why did I choose to be a biology major, with the most females of any STEM field? Even beyond that, why do I gravitate toward “feminine” things like dresses and bright colors? I don’t consciously choose these things, I just do it. Looking back, I have even when I was little. One major influence in my life, my mom, does not exhibit stereotypical feminine traits like being emotional and loving math. Despite having this influence, I still showed a gravitation toward feminine things. I am super curious about why people form preferences and I would like to see what factors influence these preferences. If we can discover how these preference systems work, maybe we can find a way to combat the internalization of the brilliant = male stereotype. I think that the factors that would influence this could be found in how a culture presents women.

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