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Girls as young as six believe brilliance is a male trait

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New research into gender stereotypes has shown that the idea of possessing the trait of ‘brilliance’ or ‘giftedness’ is something more common in males, with children as young as six years old being influenced by gendered stereotypes.

It is hoped that the study will help to improve the prevention of stereotypes affecting the future career choices of women, with previous research indicating that ‘brilliance’ being identified as the key to success affecting the number of women in mathematic and physics-related fields.

The study was carried out in the US by researchers from three universities testing 400 children, to discover just how influential these gender stereotypes are on a child’s concept of capability and intelligence.

The first test consisted of a group of 96 boys and girls aged between five and seven, each being read a story about a highly intelligent person and asked to identify the protagonist’s gender. They were then presented with several images of couples, both hetero and homosexual, and asked to pick which of the couples were the highly intelligent ones. The children were then asked, as the final test, to give certain objects presented to them certain traits, an example of “being smart” matched with pictures of either men or women.

 The results were startling: while girls aged five were equally as likely to associate ‘brilliance’ with their own gender as boys were, others aged six and seven were less likely to do so.

Among six-year-olds 65% of boys deemed their own gender as “really, really smart” in comparison to only 48% of girls deeming their gender as brilliant. In addition, white girls aged between five and seven, while associating the female sex as the gender who attain good grades, did not link this to the concept of brilliance - this is despite the fact that year on year girls marginally outperform boys at school.

Another test within the study saw a group of six and seven year olds presented with two games: one marketed for children who are “really, really smart” and the other for children who “try really, really hard”. While both were equally interested in the game for “try hard” children, girls were less interested in the one deemed for “smart” children. The results of this study essentially indicate that even very young children can be affected by these gender stereotypes, ultimately reinforcing them throughout their early education.

 It is worrying that this study supports the emergence of gendered beliefs towards intelligence from a young age, with Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington calling for our society to “figure out what we value before concluding that it is the girls we need to change” as opposed to our way of thinking about the notion of intelligence and ‘brilliance’ as a male trait.

The study highlights an issue with stereotypical role models presented to children from an early age, with Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, stating that in order to create a gender balance in mathematical and scientific career sectors “parents, teachers and the media need to work much harder eradicating gender stereotypes in the way they talk about adults to children of all ages.”

Christia Spears Brown of Kentucky University expressed similar sentiments towards the study’s results, agreeing that “[the study] shows that girls are internalizing (sic) those cultural messages early in development, believing that, yes they may work hard, but they are not naturally really smart […] these beliefs can have important implications for what types of academic paths children choose to take, and shows why girls are opting out of majors like physics, despite earning high grades in school.”




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