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.”
Using the phrase “really, really smart” as a child’s way of understanding the adult concept of brilliance, they carried out several tests to probe the influence of gender stereotypes.
In one example the children were read a story about a “really, really smart” protagonist that was not revealed to be male or female. Afterwards they were then asked to select the most likely protagonist from among pictures of men and women. At age five, most of the children picked their own gender, proving they viewed their own gender positively, however the six and seven-year olds mostly picked the male.
Another experiment had the children express their preference for two games they played, one described as for “children who are really, really smart” and the other for “children who try really, really hard”. Their findings showed that both genders were interested in the “hard” game but the six and seven-year old girls shied away from the “smart” one.
“Already by this young age girls are discounting the evidence that is in front of their eyes and basing their ideas about who is really, really smart on other things,” said Cimpian.
Overall, their study highlights how even young children can absorb and be influenced by gender stereotypes that still exist in today's society, such as that of brilliance or giftedness being more common in men, and this is having a detrimental effect on girls’ futures.
“Because these ideas are present at such an early age, they have so much time to affect the educational trajectories of boys and girls,” Cimpian explained.
The authors concluded in their paper, published in the journal Science, that “women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance (such as physics and philosophy)” because society’s gender stereotypes harbored from a young age are likely to “discourage women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers”.
“The present results suggest a sobering conclusion: many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age," the study states. "This stereotype begins to shape children's interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate."