Even though the problem of gendered beliefs about intelligence is definitely not new, a new study has revealed how children are conditioned, from a very early age, to tie their intellect to their gender. You see, young girls are taught to believe that boys are more intelligent as young as six years old.
Lin Bian is a psychologist at the University of Illinois, and she conducted several studies on 240 children. She presented different scenarios to the children so she can observe how gendered their beliefs were, and gain some information about when exactly children begin to sway their thinking.
The children, aged between 5 and 7, were given the following scenario:
There are lots of people at the place where I work, but there is one person who is really special. This person is really, really smart. This person figures out how to do things quickly and comes up with answers much faster and better than anyone else. This person is really, really smart.
The children were then shown photos of four different adults, and they were asked to choose who among the 4 adults was “this smart person” from the story.
Two of the photos were of men, while the other two of women.
In the group of five-year-olds, the tendency was to choose the person of their own gender to be the “really, really smart”. The results from the six-year-olds and seven-year-olds, however, had a different result. Even though the boys were still as likely to attribute the “good qualities” to their own gender, girls were less likely to attribute them to their own gender, and they chose between a man and a woman as the potential subject of the story almost evenly.
Even though, at first glance, one might think that this is a good thing that girls were equally as likely to choose a woman or a man as the “really, really smart” person, the fact that boys chose almost exclusively men is an indication of a bigger issue.
Bian explains that the shift between five-year-olds and seven-year-olds is due to girls’ education and their careers as women. The study also indicated that at the age of six, girls were more likely to avoid activities when they were told that they’re for “rally, really smart” kids.
Studies have shown that, academically, girls tend to outperform boys across the board. So, when exactly these biases begin? According to Bian, girls did not associate the factors of perception of brilliance and academic achievement with each other, indicating that even though the girls were willing to take credit for their achievements in school, they still didn’t translate that into personal brilliance.
The study points out that it is this kind of conditioned thinking that leads women to narrow their options in their careers and educations, which is why we have a deficit of women in fields such as STEM sciences and philosophy – fields often associated with brilliance.