Girls as young as 6 years old are likely to believe stereotypes about women’s intelligence. These stereotypes, according to a study published in the journal Science, harm girls by undermining their performance in pursuits such as math.
Although sex and gender differences are the source of much scientific debate, no research conclusively proves that one sex is more intelligent. Recent studies have undermined the notion of fixed sex-based differences in personality and cognition. One new study found no substantive differences between male and female amygdalae—a brain region associated with memory and emotion.
How Gender Stereotypes Affect Young Children
The study used four different trials to assess 400 children’s beliefs in gender stereotypes. In one trial, researchers told 96 children a story about a smart person, then asked the children about the person’s gender. At 5 years old, children were more likely to assign their gender to the person. By 7, children were more likely to believe the smart person was male. A second trial with a larger sample of 144 children had similar results.
Another trial looked at how beliefs about intelligence influenced children’s interests. Researchers gave 64 children a game for “children who are really, really smart,” and another game for children who “try really, really hard.” Girls were less interested in the game for smart children, but not the game for children who try hard.women’s intelligence between the ages of 5 and 7. These stereotypes affect their assessments of their own intelligence, which then affects their decisions on activities they are willing to try.
How Stereotype Threat Can Thwart Success
The study points to previous research suggesting gender stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Stereotype threat, for example, is a predicament people may find themselves in when they feel they are at risk of conforming to a widely held stereotype about their group. Several studies have found when women and girls are reminded of their gender, or of gendered stereotypes about women and math, they perform worse on math tests than they otherwise would.
If girls accept gender stereotypes at a young age, these stereotypes are likely to affect their academic performance, their interests, and their career choices. The study’s authors suggest consistently exposing young girls to successes and contributions made by influential women may be a way to help girls recognize their full potential.
- Bian, L., Leslie, S., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391. doi:10.1126/science.aah6524
- Stereotypes lower math performance in women, but effects go unrecognized, IU study finds. (2015, March 26). Retrieved from http://news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2015/03/stereotype-threats.shtml
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