Decades before they choose a career, girls think being 'really, really smart' is for boys

Science Friday
A student at the chalkboard

There’s an old, insidious stereotype that men are brainier than women — that somehow they’re more dazzling, more genius. And that notion can have wide-ranging effects on women’s career decisions: One study recently found that there are fewer women than men in academic fields that place a premium on “innate brilliance” — like physics, philosophy and computer science.

Now, further research suggests that those stereotypes can take root in girls decades before careers are made. According to a study just published in Science,girls as young as 6 think that being “really, really smart” is for boys.

In the first part of the study, researchers told 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children a story about someone who was “really, really smart.”

“And we made sure that this story was told in a way that there were no gender clues whatsoever,” says Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton University and one of the study’s co-authors.

Then, she explains, researchers showed the children photographs of people they’d never seen before — two male and two female — and asked them to pick out the story’s clever protagonist. She says that 5-year-old girls and boys were just as likely to choose a member of their own gender as the bright one.

“But by the time girls and boys reached age 6, we find that girls are significantly less likely than boys to identify a member of their own gender as the protagonist in the story,” she notes.

Another way of putting it: “If we compare 5-year-old girls to 6-year-old girls, we find that the 6-year-olds are much less likely than the 5-year-old girls to identify a girl as the one who can be really smart.”

Then, Leslie says, researchers wanted to know whether these stereotypes actually affect girls’ interests, “and so whether [they] could be contributing to these gender imbalances in math and science.” (Leslie was also an author on the first paper about “innate brilliance” described above.)

First, researchers introduced a new game to children, saying that it was for kids who were “really hardworking.” “And there we found no gender difference,” she says. “Boys and girls [were] equally enthusiastic about that game.”

But in a second game, researchers changed the wording slightly. “We said to kids, this game is only for kids who are really, really smart. Only smart kids can be good at this game,” Leslie adds. There, researchers again encountered a split: “We found that by the age of 6, little girls were much less enthusiastic than boys about that game.”

“And the cumulative effect of young girls being less likely to want to engage with activities that are seen as for smart people lead to cumulative gender imbalances over time.”

Leslie thinks the turning point for girls comes as they learn to interpret adult social cues. “Unfortunately, little kids are like sponges that soak up stereotypes,” she says. “We think that very often adult cues will not be picked up on by children, that they’re too subtle, but children will hone right in on them.”

She points to pop culture portrayals of highly intelligent people — Sherlock Holmes, the TV medical series, "House" and "Good Will Hunting" — and notes that not only are they overwhelmingly male, but their intelligence comes off as “effortless.”

“The sort of cultural myth that some people are just effortlessly brilliant isn't helpful,” she says. “It's not productive. It's also not realistic. People who succeed in math and science work incredibly hard at it, and they get to where they are by really sticking with it.”

So instead of signaling to children that only innately brilliant people can be scientists, she has another idea for sparking illustrious STEM careers:

“Let's talk about the process of science,” she says. “Let's talk about the hard work, effort and dedication that goes into it.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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