Girls Are Brilliant (And Why That Matters)

Girls Are Brilliant (And Why That Matters)

In light of recent events, I’ve started hearing arguments (from both men and women) that women have achieved equality and need to “stop complaining.” Everyone apparently knows that girls are brilliant already. I’ve also been informed that “men controlling women” isn’t a common theme that exists outside of my own “echo chamber” and that women can officially do anything they want to. I realize that research has also lost popularity as of late, but as a researcher, I will continue to publish research-based information.

Gender Stereotypes Start Young

In the midst of the arguments this past week, a study was published looking at 6-year-olds. In the first part of the study, children were told a story about a character that was “really, really smart.” They were then shown pictures of 2 men and 2 women and told to identify which one they thought was the protagonist of the story. 5-year-old girls and boys (not yet school-aged) were just as likely to choose a boy or a girl as a protagonist to the story (and likely to lean toward identifying the protagonist as themselves–girls would choose a girl, boys would choose a boy). 6-year-olds, however, were not. The study states: “Despite [the] strong tendency to view one’s gender in a positive light, girls aged 6 and 7 were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender.”

To solidify their findings, they then asked kids about an activity that was for “really, really smart kids.” Again, 5-year-old boys and girls were equally likely to be interested in the activity, but 6 and 7-year-old girls were significantly less likely than boys to be interested in the game for “really, really smart kids.” This means that once girls reach school-age, they identify brilliance with males more often than females. They also apply this thinking to themselves and are less likely to identify THEMSELVES as brilliant. The study concludes: “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.”

Gender Bias in Adults

These gender stereotypes start young, but continue through adulthood for both men and women. A study published last year asked college biology students to rate the proficiency of fellow classmates. Male respondents were significantly more likely to nominate male classmates and were worse at predicting proficiency because they under-nominated women. Female respondents (notably in a STEM class in college) “nominated equitably based on student performance rather than gender.” Female biology students were able to identify peers that were proficient in the subject without gender bias. Male students assumed their male peers were smarter. 

Why It Matters

I recently discussed a study that showed that poverty is limiting human potential. If the next great mind is born into poverty, the chances are low that they will have access to the resources they need to make a difference in the world. Now, consider the studies we discussed today. If HALF OF THE POPULATION starts believing that they are not brilliant by age 6, they won’t even TRY to be the change in the world. Those that are able to overcome this thinking themselves will face this bias in male peers. This means that despite anecdotes of successful women you may know, research shows that women have to face tremendous barriers to success. When we inadvertently limit half of the population, we inevitably limit their potential.

Girls Are Brilliant

As you probably know, I have two school-aged daughters: Penny (8) and Florin (6). Last night at the dinner table, without any prep, I said: “We’re going to play a little game. I want you to start a story about someone that is brilliant. This person is really, really smart. Will you write down their name and what they like to do?” Penny immediately asked: “Can it be a boy or a girl?” This is telling. Penny, at age 8, was able to identify that I may have expected the answer to be a boy and had to ask if it was okay to have it be a girl. This question may have also biased Florin’s decision in her answer. Here is how they responded:

Penny wrote about an actual peer of hers that is a math whiz: 

Gema! a real person, a girl, and really good at math!

Florin made up a character named Susan that loves reading books:

name susen. like books.

After they responded, I told them about the study and we talked about it. I reiterated that girls were brilliant and boys were brilliant and everyone just needs to identify what they’re best at because everyone is brilliant at something. Florin added “We should ask Lui to do this when he turns 6!” and I have to agree (he’s 2).

Something happens when girls go to school that starts them thinking they have less capacity for brilliance. We need to change this. Parents need to do better at home emphasizing the potential of their sons AND their daughters. Teachers need to continue to teach the potential of girls to their female students AND their male students. And it’s clear we haven’t reached equality. It all starts with thinking. Until little girls start thinking they’re brilliant and older boys start considering their female classmates as smart, there are still barriers to overcome. And the limiting of human potential matters to everyone.

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34 Comments

  1. TheRetirementManifesto

    Fascinating study, and disturbing. How do girls across society all get SO negatively influenced between the age of 5 and 6? You’re doing it right with your daughters, and more parents should follow your example. Bravo, Maggie!!

    • MaggieBanks

      The problem is they will then enter the world where they will face less people taking them seriously. The problem continues. Let’s hope it continues to improve!

  2. I am incredibly fortunate to have worked in environments where men and women are treated equally and respect one another. The down side to this is how naive it made me and I had the view that inequality was a thing of the past. In the last year or 2, I have opened my eyes. That said, I am passionate about the causes both men and women face. For example, I recently read a story that said prostate cancer in men is more common than breast cancer in women. I think we should all be raising awareness of both. Certainly in the UK, breast cancer awareness and fundraising is exceptionally high. Of course, men benefit from this too.

    Maggie, if you have not seen the film Suffragette, I would highly recommend it, if you can get your hands on a copy. We have come a long way but the road continues ahead.

    • MaggieBanks

      The research on prostate cancer and breast cancer lately have actually shown harmful effects of overscreening. Yes, prostate cancer IS more common than breast cancer, but for A LOT of those men, doing nothing about it would never negatively impact them. Breast cancer is more aggressive, so that’s different, but current screening techniques have a hard time deciphering between thick tissue and a trouble spot. I haven’t yet seen the film Suffragette, but it’s on my list. 🙂

  3. ChooseBetterLife

    Thank you! I love how you include the research rather than just opinion and anecdote. It’s sad that our society still has so much work to do, but with more awareness we can address it head on.

  4. I heard about this study last week and it made me really sad. I wish we could identify exactly what was causing this on a nationwide level.

    My brain is far more analytic than creative and I was fortunate to have many teachers push me towards math and science. My experience working in accounting is that it seems fairly equal. However, the business partners are a problem. I’ve worked across various fields and they seem to prefer the men in accounting over the women. This may be partly due to older employees holding that bias and I’m seeing a small shift with the younger business partners. But it’s still discouraging.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m sure the tides are changing for the better as more women enter these fields, but the bias is clearly not gone for even today’s college-aged men. That doesn’t bode well for an immediate change toward total equality in respect.

  5. Wow! Unfortunately, this doesn’t surprise me 🙁 I have a 7-year old daughter and I cannot wait to use this test on her tonight. I can almost certainly say that she will choose a boy as being brilliant. In fact, and I have no idea where she got this from, she constantly chooses boy characters and wants to be “a boy” when she’s playing an animal. She somehow thinks boys are superior. Ugh. I’ll report back with my case study!

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

    • MaggieBanks

      Portraying herself as a smart, powerful boy is also possibly empowering. It’s when she starts self-identifying as a weak, dumb girl that I would be really concerned.

  6. My favorite studies are the resume ones – Like: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/unofficial-prognosis/study-shows-gender-bias-in-science-is-real-heres-why-it-matters/

    It’s easy for many people to go “We’re in such a better place than we were X years ago.” Yeah…and? We should stop working towards equality? We should say, “Well, our daughters won’t be discriminated against as bad as we were?”

    Yeah, no.

    • MaggieBanks

      SO TRUE. I really struggled only including two studies, but I didn’t want to get too overwhelming with the research. But science definitely backs up the fact that we haven’t yet arrived… and we’re not just going to settle in where we’re at for our daughters’ sakes!

  7. For obvious reasons, this study caught my attention, and I’m also interested in the effects of racial bias which also come into play because representation there matters as well. As you might have seen on my link love post where I talked about Hidden Figures, there are people who think that having to wait decades to be recognized isn’t outrageous.

    Girls ARE brilliant and they deserve to see examples of this every single day.

    • MaggieBanks

      I can’t WAIT to see Hidden Figures… we just haven’t quite made it out there yet… the majority of the kids in the study were white, but they didn’t find a significant difference in results among those that were not (although that was a very small sample of non-white kids and I agree that’s a big deal as well!)

  8. LX

    I’m wondering how the over sexualization of young girls contributes to this. I feel like from a young age little girls are praised for how pretty and cute they are while little boys are praised for being though and smart. For sure by the early teen years girls are influenced that looks and make up skills are just as, if not more important than brilliance.

    • MaggieBanks

      I agree. And my oldest always cared about being fancy when she was tiny, but I’m careful when I meet little girls that I ask them what they like to do before I start complimenting them on their outfit selection (though I feel that is also perfectly acceptable if that’s clearly important to the child… Penny loved being complimented on how fancy she looked!)

  9. Interesting read and some food for thought! We have a little girl and we are probably going to run into the same issue(s). Thanks for the post.

    • MaggieBanks

      I feel like making them aware of it is helpful because then they are more informed if they start feeling like they are starting to feel dumb or inferior.

  10. Donna

    Maggie – I think this is so true.

    I have a question – was it obvious that Penny was asking if she could choose a girl instead of a boy? Or is it possible she was asking if she could pick a kid instead of an adult?

    • MaggieBanks

      Donna – that’s possible, but I don’t think her actual question posed that. But again, it’s possible.

  11. Ironically I grew up with the exact opposite conclusion. At my high school the top 20 students by GPA were all female. Its funny how the environment you grow up in influences your perception.

    Gender bias does exist, but I think its a bit more subtle. Things like the perceptions that a women negotiating on salary is too aggressive. Perception of individuals that women (and in some cases men) don’t do specific types of jobs. Etc. My wife as a female engineer has many stories about how people treated her differently because she is a woman. Nothing malicious, just simply that perception and the ramifications thereof.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m happy to hear girls are nailing it in some places in the world – hopefully those women aren’t stuck being treated differently. I remember my two professors always comparing student ratings after every semester. All the students loved the male professor, but the female professor would get ratings that said: “not nurturing enough.” Honestly! No one would ever write that to a male professor.

  12. ExploreMountainsOnSkiFoot&Bike

    Thanks!

  13. What interesting and sad research! But as always, SO appreciate you sharing the research to back this stuff up. Being interested in women’s equality and the root causes does not make us shrill man haters. 🙂

  14. Chris @ KeepThrifty

    As a Dad to the brilliant awesome daughters, thank you for putting this out there. I saw that study too and it’s hard but to be a bit disheartened.

    • Chris @ KeepThrifty

      *that should have been “three brilliant awesome daughters”

      • MaggieBanks

        They may struggle in this world, but what you teach them at home and the rhetoric you use with them will shape them as they leave your home. I’m sure they’ll be just fine. 🙂

  15. CR

    The one issue I would have with this study is that most 6 year olds of my acquaintance are not generally concerned with intelligence at all let alone consider it as a factor when describing another 6 year old.
    From reading the study, I would have said it was a cultural issue- mostly limited to the US. My experience at both primary and secondary school (Ireland) was that you were aware of ‘smart’ as a label from about 10 or 11 years on. At secondary school it was generally considered that the girls were more capable academically. However I went to a traditional, academically rigorous school in pre-STEM days. Also we had to do a minimum of 9 different subjects at secondary school which meant that we were more likely to be exposed to the STEM subjects anyway (Science and Maths are mandatory).

    • MaggieBanks

      It definitely could be a cultural problem… I agree that MANY MANY countries are WAY Better with gender equality and opportunity than the U.S. – SO MANY. Ugh.

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