By the age of six, girls already consider boys “really, really smart” and more likely to show brilliance than their own gender, according to a study published in the journal Science.
Researchers found that five-year-old girls viewed themselves as equal to boys in terms of intelligence. However, by age six that perception seemed to change.
The results of the study are based on a wide range of experiments conducted on 400 children. For one experiment, the researchers told the children a story about a person who was “really, really smart.”
“We were very careful to leave out any clues as to the person’s gender,” said researcher Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. When asked who the protagonist of the story was, the children at age five picked characters of their respective gender. But just one year later something changed — both the boys and girls began picking boys as the protagonist.
In another experiment, the researcher gave the children activities that were intended for “really, really smart kids.” At age five, both genders enjoyed the activities equally, but by age six and seven, the girls lost interest.
“When they enter school around 5 or 6 years of age, they get to have much more exposure to the cultural message, and that’s when they learn a great deal of the information about the social world,” Bian said. “It seems to lead girls away from the types of activities that are for really smart kids.”
However, when they were asked to pick four children who they felt would get the best grades in school, two boys and two girls were picked. There was no difference between the younger and older girls’ likelihood of picking their own gender.
Madeleine Portwood, a child psychologist in the UK and director of the Witherslack Group of special education schools, was not surprised by this. Girls are typically empowered to achieve academically, Portwood said. However, this discrepancy between genders may also be due to developmental differences at that young age, Portwood explained.
“Gender stereotyping is evident at age 6. … Boys are more likely prone to telling everyone ‘I am smart’ or ‘I am strong’ and constantly require reassurance,” Portwood said. “Girls are more conciliatory and look at someone else’s point of view.”
These stereotypes — reinforced by media, peers, teachers and parents — leave a long-lasting impact on young girls. As they reach adulthood, girls are still affected by these stereotypes, which in turn may influence their decisions about their careers. In fields that typically associate with brilliance, such as physics and philosophy, women are woefully underrepresented.
“They probably don’t consider themselves as brilliant,” Bian said. “And when they reach adulthood, it will be very hard to convince them otherwise. We need to do something from early on.”
Portwood added that universities have done a lot to address this large discrepancy in gender, especially in fields like science, but there is still more work to be done.
Bian agrees and says that more research needs to be done in order to determine how teachers and parents can take on this problem. In the meantime, strong female role models have been shown in previous studies to inspire more ambition in girls and helped to narrow the gender gap.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.