The cumulative effect of gender stereotypes begin to express themselves in children's choices at age 6
In a study published last week, Bian et al. found that girls begin to internalise the idea that brilliance is a male trait at the age of six.
Published in Science, the authors discuss the 'stereotype threat,' and its well-studied effects on women's performance in areas such as mathematics and related fields. They note, however, that gender stereotypes are associated not only with specific cognitive skills, but also with the overall intellectual ability per se. In other words, that genius is more often associated with being male.
A number of studies have previously looked at the under-representation of women in careers typically considered as requiring cognitive brilliance or genius. Indeed, one study showed that just by looking at the frequency of the words "brilliant" and "genius" in 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessor.com, the representation of women and African-Americans could be accurately predicted (Storage et al., 2016).
Bian et al. (2017) hypothesised that the earlier a child internalises the concept that brilliance is a male quality, the stronger its influence is likely to be, and set out to answer the question as to what age children in the United States begin to adopt this thinking.
The authors' paper discusses the results of four studies, performed with a total of 400 children. They found that at aged 5, children overwhelmingly associated brilliance with their own gender (typical in-group behaviour), but that by ages 6 and 7, girls were significantly less likely than boys to do so.
In another related study, the authors introduced two new games, one said to be for "children who are really, really smart," and the other for "children who try really, really hard." Girls were found to be less interested than boys in the game for smart children, but not in the game for hard-working children (and interestingly, this difference was again observed only from age 6. Children at age 5 did not show any gender difference).
The gender-brilliance test was repeated with these children, and girls aged 6 were again found to associate brilliance with their own gender far less than boys did, with their responses to this question linked to their interest in the respective games - thus giving credence to the authors' original hypothesis that the stereotype threat shapes children's decisions about what subjects and activities to pursue.
This important study demonstrates that the cumulative effect of the stereotype effect begins to express itself directly in the preferences and choices of girls, from the age of 6. This further highlights the importance of how females are represented to young children, as well as the imperative nature of giving children access to toys that will give them confidence in their own abilities in a range of skills, during the key developmental years of 0-5.
Bian, L., Leslie, S., Cimpain, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests.
Storage, D., Horne, Z., Cimpain, A., Leslie, S. (2016). The Frequency of “Brilliant” and “Genius” in Teaching Evaluations Predicts the Representation of Women and African Americans across Fields.