Wise Words

Gender & Brilliance

April 25, 2018

I was doing some sleuthing in the research literature recently — one of my favorite pastimes — and I stumbled across a study that, in my opinion, should have gotten much wider circulation. I’ve spoken and written about sensitive periods in early childhood. There’s a sensitive period for language, for a sense of order, and even for social behavior; but there may be another sensitive period that may have remained hidden until now.

It seems that at five years old, girls see both sexes — male and female — as equally smart. Girls are as likely to see women in “smart roles” as their male counterparts. But only a year or two later, that seems to change dramatically. Little girls’ mindsets — and ultimately, their career ambitions — can change because suddenly, according to a study of 400 young people reported in Science magazine, they believe boys are smarter, particularly in certain fields (download study here). The study, “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests” was conducted by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Andrei Cimpian. While the study was completed more than a year ago, the data and insight it provides are timeless and bears retelling — up until little girls regain their can-do attitude about intellect and gender.

The authors discuss stereotypes that speak to “...not only specific cognitive processes (e.g., mathematical reasoning) with a particular gender but also the overall amount of cognitive ability.”

“This ‘brilliance = males’ stereotype has been invoked to explain the gender gaps in many prestigious occupations…However, little is known about the acquisition of this stereotype. The earlier children acquire the notion that brilliance is a male quality, the stronger its influence may be on their aspirations.”

One of the tasks included in the study involved telling five-, six- and seven-year-olds a brief story about someone who is very smart; the story gave no hints as to the gender of this smart person. The participants were then asked to pick the smart person from photos of four unfamiliar adults. “At 5, boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender to a similar extent,” yet, “girls aged 6 and 7 were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender. “

The researchers speculate about the causes behind the attitude shift in the young study participants, including society’s stronger modesty norms for women. The fact remains, however, that girls at a very young age accept the belief that males are brighter than they are and that belief could affect how they see themselves and they aspire to be.

Dr. Valaida Wise

Head of School

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