Published in Catalogue, 2016
In January of this year, a study was published in Science journal with findings that gendered stereotypes about intellectual ability and brilliance are evident very early on in childhood and inevitably influence children’s interests. In this study girls as young as six were displaying biases for believing that boys, more so than girls, were “really, really smart”; in other words, they believed genius to be a primarily male quality.
The study involved 400 children, half of whom were girls, from ages five to seven and range of tests to establish stereotyping gender differentiations, such as reading a story about a highly intelligent person and later being asked what they thought the gender of that person might be. Other tasks involved activities such as showing the children photographs of couples – some of the same sex, some of opposite sexes – and being asked to indicate who they believed was more likely to be highly intelligent. What the researchers found was this: at five years-old girls were just as likely to associate with high intelligence with girls or boys but once they reached six and seven-years old, this impartial approach was skewed, with boys of these ages believing their own gender to be “really, really smart” 65% of the time, while girls only selected their gender 48% of the time.
Even more astoundingly, the researchers found that all of the girls aged five to seven were more likely to associate girls with good grades as compared to the boys and yet still declined to believe that this was due to any inherent brilliance, instead it was attributed simply to harder work. Perhaps as a direct result of this thinking, girls were also seen to be less likely to be interested in games designed for “really, really smart children” than boys but were equally interested in games designed for children who “try really, really hard”. Andrei Cimpian, a researcher from Princeton University and one of the co-authors of the study commented that, “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”.
This study was also far from the first to demonstrate how sexist biases and stereotyping directly affect girls’ educations. It has been shown that boys are more likely to attribute their successes to ability, while girls are more likely to attribute their successes to luck. Girls are also seen to accept responsibility more readily for academic failures than their successes and one 1990 study even found teachers from as early as first grade have been shown to “attribute causation of boys’ successes and failures to ability and girls’ successes and failures to effort”. While it has been traditionally reported that girls achieve higher grades than boys in school, it seems that even this can negatively affect their self-esteem, with the overriding belief that having inherently high academic ability – or genius – means achieving good grades effortlessly. For girls that work hard to achieve their grades, they are troubled by the belief that they lack natural ability. It seems that even in their successes, girls are reflecting negatively upon themselves.