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