In a “heartbreaking” new study, scientists have discovered that gender stereotypes can start affecting children from as young as six, the age when girls start thinking of traits like intelligence, brilliance, and genius, as distinctly male.
It’s no secret that there is an imbalance of women and men working in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In fact, in the US, where this study was conducted, only 30 percent of people employed in STEM positions are women.
Hoping to find out why this is, researchers from New York University, University of Illinois, and Princeton decided to investigate several possible factors, including whether societal gender stereotypes such as associating “intellectual talent” with males affected girls’ choices from a young age.
Their study found that girls as young as six believed that exceptional talent was a boy’s trait, and their male counterparts are more likely to exhibit "brilliance". It’s also the age they began steering themselves away from activities aimed at the “really, really smart”, choosing ones aimed at children who “try really, really hard” instead.
"Not only do we see that girls just starting out in school are absorbing some of society's stereotyped notions of brilliance, but these young girls are also choosing activities based on these stereotypes,” said senior author Andrei Cimpian from NYU in a statement. “This is heartbreaking."
The study looked at 400 children, half of whom were girls, between the ages of five and seven years old to evaluate their opinions and attitudes towards the notions of intelligence and ability.
“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,” said co-author Lin Bian. “We wanted to know whether young children also endorse these stereotypes.”