I haven’t recently posted anything specifically for my Books Over Looks blog series, the purpose of which is to talk about how to help kids, particularly girls, realize books, reading, education and thought are more important than material things or how many likes they have on Instagram.
A recent study that found as early as the age of 6 girls already think they are NOT as smart as boys made me think it was time for another installment.
What the Study Found
In January 2017, a study of 400 children was published in Science medical journal. It found that up until the age of 5, girls were equally as likely as boys to assume someone from their own gender was “very, very smart” (this was how the study defined the idea of ‘brilliance’ for young kids). However, by 6 and 7, girls were “significantly less likely” to think women were smart. That’s pretty alarming.
Here’s how the study figured this out. They told both boys and girls a series of stories about someone who is “really, really smart”, for example, they might say
“A person in my office is really, really smart—they solve problems faster and better than anyone else.”
Then the investigators held up two pictures and asked the children to identify which person they think the story is most likely to be about.
At 5-years-old, both boys and girls tended to associate brilliance (eg, very, very smart) with their own gender, meaning that most girls chose women and most boys chose men. By the age of 6 to 7, girls in the study were 20%–30% LESS LIKELY to assume the brilliant individual in the story was a woman. That’s nearly 1/3 less likely. That’s a pretty significant drop.
Another troubling finding was that by 6 or 7 years old girls also started to shy away from activities if they were labeled as activities for those who were “very, very smart.” Interestingly, the study also found that girls were more likely to think that girls in general do better in school, indicating they don’t associate academic success with brilliance.
Why Does This Matter?
One of the goals of the study was to determine why women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – if you have kids, you’ve heard this term. The theory here being that stereotypes regarding gender affect girls at a very young age and have long-lasting consequences.
This study seems to support that concept. Many believe (either consciously or subconsciously) that STEM activities require a “natural” or “gifted” intelligence vs something that just requires hard work to learn. The study indicates that, believing that they are not as gifted or brilliant as boys (aka, they don’t have that type of intelligence), girls tend to shy away from demanding majors and fields, leading to big differences in aspirations and career choices between men and women.
“The study concluded that the stereotype that boys are brilliant and girls aren’t — which is common in American society — may cause girls to narrow the careers they decide to pursue later in life.”
This is not surprising to me, unfortunately. As a woman, men have managed to make me feel dumb (intentionally or unintentionally) since I can remember, either by talking down to me or, my favorite, mansplaining, which I think is an artifact of this very issue. (Men, if you don’t think you do this, even the nicest of you do. You might want to be a little more cognizant of it.)
This sort of treatment is rampant, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant. I once had an adviser in college tell me not to take astronomy because there was a lot of “math” and girls struggle with math. (I got an A in the class. I also got a new adviser.)
I’ve also, unfortunately, seen this happen with my own daughter (11-years-old), who often comes home and complains about the “know it all” boys at school who think they know more and are smarter than the girls to the point where they flat out say this. It frustrates her and I see it affecting her confidence. She constantly talks about how she’s not smart (which is not the case, she’s a very smart kid.) But she doesn’t see it.
You can dismiss this behavior as “kids being kids” if you’d like. But I think the research above points to how “kids being kids” has a pretty big impact on the world.
So, as a parent or simply a member of society, what do we do to help show our girls women are just as smart as men?
How We Can Help All Girls Feel Smarter
1. Get to the root of the problem socially – This study has started exploring and establishing the effect. Now we need to really understand why and how this occurs in order to combat it. But, more studies are needed. How can you help? Support research! Support science! Support girls!
2. Start at home – Parents, grandparents, care-givers, teachers of young girls, this is on us. Somehow we are imparting this idea and only we can fix. We need to look at the subtle signals we might be sending. We need to make sure we’re not just telling our girls they’re smart, but showing them how smart they are. How can we do this? Talk to them. Find out how they feel. Encourage them not to shy away from a subject because they think they aren’t smart enough. You know how smart your kid is and whether or not they can handle something. I bet your girls are up to the challenge.
3. Role models in media – We need more girls on TV and in books who instead of finding fairies are solving problems with science and technology. Let’s get someone like an updated Nancy Drew who uses science and technology to solve mysteries or a girl who uses math to discover a portal to another dimension. Give us something more than a sweet girl trying to figure out life in school or a girl who becomes the high school quarterback. I think the story of strong female “Buffy” characters are great. But we also need more brainy Willows for our girls to emulate. We need more Rory Gilmores. (Can you tell the shows I watch with my daughter?)
3. Real life modeling – Girls need to see more smart women succeed in real life too. It certainly doesn’t help that our girls were subjected to a very high profile story of a smart woman being torn down while running for US president. (You can cling to your beliefs that Hillary was evil if you’d like. But, the truth is she is a smart woman, a well-educated woman, a qualified woman, a sane woman. And she lost to a less intelligent, less educated, unqualified, sexist man.) That’s the kind of message we’re sending to our girls: It doesn’t matter if you’re a smart, qualified or hardworking woman, a man is always smarter and better, even when he’s not. Don’t think it’s true? That’s exactly what my 11-year-old daughter took away from it. I doubt she’s the only one. We need to do better. We need to highlight more women like these brilliant women above.
4. Support research and programs to bolster girls – As a society and as individuals we need to support research and programs that encourage girls to explore math, science and technology fields and increase their confidence. (This can be as simple as encouraging your daughter to participate in the science fair. I have never done this and now I will.) We need to make traditionally “girl” and “boy” roles and activities disappear.
5. Talk to girls and boys – This isn’t just an issue with girls. We’re also blatantly or subtly conveying to boys they’re smarter and should persue certain activities, particularly math and science. And this perceived gender inequality that we’ve created reverberates for decades. Boys also need to understand just as much as girls that intelligence and “brilliance” is not sex-specific.
I think awareness is the first step to change. So, let’s get people aware and let’s start to change! I think this study is a good first step.