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U. researcher shows gender stereotypes about intelligence present in young children

Stereotypes associating brilliance with men more than women emerge in girls by age six, according to a paper coauthored by a University professor published in the journal Science on Jan. 27.

Six-year-old girls proved less likely than six-year-old boys to consider people of their own gender "really, really smart." The outcome unfolded as children picked among photos of males and females to identify the "really, really smart" protagonist of a story they had just heard, the "really, really smart" member of a pair, or the person corresponding to various characteristics and objects. Though at age five, boys selected their own gender 71 percent of the time and girls 69 percent, by age six, the gap widened to 65 versus 48 percent.


Relative to their male counterparts, six-year-old girls also showed less interest in games described as for the "really, really smart." A girl picked at random would have a 64 percent lower chance of wanting to play than a boy picked at random.

Parallel results surfaced for stereotypes linking women to kindness and diligence. At six, boys alone grew less likely to associate niceness with their own gender, and girls remained as eager as them to attempt games for those who "try really, really hard."

University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie co-authored the study with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign doctoral student in psychology Lin Bian and New York University psychology professor Andrei Cimpian.

The article adds to a series investigating why women are underrepresented in some academic disciplines more so than in others, Leslie said.

She and Cimpian led the initial study, published in Science on Jan. 16, 2015. It argued that fewer females work in academic disciplines whose practitioners consider innate talent the key to success, because stereotypes cast women as lacking such genius. Females might exit brilliance-oriented fields because they internalize the stereotypes, dread the effort necessary to demonstrate that the stereotypes do not apply to them, or go overlooked by colleagues and superiors, Cimpian explained.

No convincing evidence in the scientific literature suggests that women actually fare worse intellectually in male-dominated fields, the authors noted.


"It's interesting in itself to know about these stereotypes in young children and it's interesting in itself to know about these stereotypes predicting women's representation in certain fields," Leslie said. "But when you put them together, then you really see that these stereotypes are impacting girls from a very young age, and probably impacting their educational choices for maybe 12 years before they even get to a college classroom."

Since the 2015 study pioneered research into stereotypes about which gender is likelier to be brilliant than the other, the 2017 study offered the first insight into childhood acquisition of the brilliance stereotype, Leslie said.

"No one had ever thought about a whole field having a mindset, a whole field believing that it takes fixed innate ability to succeed, versus believing dedication, hard work, growth of ability over time is the major factor," said Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose work Leslie cited as a source of inspiration for the 2015 study. "The very nature of their hypothesis led them to look in places people hadn't."

Furthermore, the 2017 study was the first to examine children's gender stereotypes concerning intelligence in general, Bian said. She explained that much literature shows that adults attribute high brainpower to males, and some literature indicates that children associate math aptitude with boys.

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Because math gender stereotypes begin in five- to seven-year-olds according to a 2011 study, the researchers chose that period for their experiment on cognitive ability stereotypes, Cimpian said. The starkness of the discrepancy at age six shocked him.

Age rather than grade matters, Leslie said. Though the team must conduct more experiments to explain why six, she suspected that the brilliance stereotype arises then as the product of extensive learning about the social world from different sources, including parents, teachers, peers, siblings, media, and popular culture.

Cimpian expressed surprise that no relation existed between whom girls perceived as earning the best marks, namely girls, and whom they considered brilliant. Cimpian speculated that perhaps girls neglect to extrapolate from judgments about their peers to judgments about women. Alternatively, he hypothesized that they already hold the attitude common among adults that good grades reveal not brilliance, but rather diligence — a striking development given that school should supply the most relevant evidence concerning someone's intellectual ability.

Within the mostly middle class, white sample, the main result held regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or parental education. Future research will investigate how much the findings apply to other populations. Cimpian predicted some variability across cultures because stereotypes differ from place to place. However, he added that most countries endorse stereotypes that deem men better suited to math and science, so differences in the timing of their acquisition might prove minor.

University psychology professor Joan Girgus praised the study. She said it employed a reasonably standard developmental methodology, one used by a high percentage of scholars in the field.

As the immediate next step, the researchers will conduct a longitudinal study that tracks a group of children from ages five to seven, while measuring as many environmental factors as possible to determine what most predicts the emergence of the brilliance stereotype in boys and girls, Cimpian said. He listed candidates like parents' ideas, media exposure, and teachers' interactions.

After determining the origins of the stereotype, the team will propose interventions to not only prevent the development of differences in how boys and girls view brilliance, but also instill a mindset of working hard rather than relying on raw talent.

"To the extent that you convey to kids that success at anything that they're interested in is less a matter of innate ability, and more a matter of growing your skills, finding the right strategies, putting in effort, then stereotypes have less of a chance to constrict the aspirations of little boys and girls," Cimpian said.

Undercutting the very notion of effortless brilliance will be essential, Leslie said. After all, Dweck's work reveals that everyone, regardless of gender, benefits from adopting the view that dedication and perseverance will improve outcomes, she explained.

"I would resist the conclusion that some people draw, which is, 'Shouldn't we just tell little girls they're really smart?' Well, certainly we shouldn't only tell little boys that they're really smart. But let's just change the terms of the conversation entirely," Leslie said.

Other empirically supported interventions include connecting girls to successful female role models and having fathers do as many household chores as mothers, she added.

She noted that the study should help eliminate the common attitude that lays the burden of overcoming stereotypes on individual women.

"No one thinks that a six-year-old should have the personal responsibility to take a skeptical attitude toward societal gender norms," Leslie said. Instead, adults must collectively work to stop limiting the opportunities of young girls.

In particular, Leslie urged University students to open horizons by pursuing their ambitions, without constraints from stereotypes, so as to improve the world that children will grow up in.