One of the surprise box office hits this year is “Hidden Figures.” It’s based on the true story of a team of female African-American mathematicians at NASA in the late 50s and early 60s that helped launch the first U.S. astronaut into space. The women were brilliant but faced enormous challenges for acceptance because of their race and gender.
According to a new study, you might could say that there are millions of "hidden figures" in who young girls and boys’ perceive as someone who is “really, really smart.”
Researchers wanted to try and figure out why women are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields. While most women make the decision to pursue these courses in high school or college, the scientists found that children develop a stereotype of which gender is naturally smarter early in life.
The study involved 400 children, aged 5 to 7 and included a story told by Lin Bian, a co-author and psychologist at the University of Illinois.
“There are lots of people at the place where I work, but there is one person who is really special. This person is really, really smart,” said Bian. “This person figures out how to do things quickly and comes up with answers much faster and better than anyone else. This person is really, really smart.”
She then showed them pictures of four adults—two men and two women—and asked them to guess which was the protagonist of the story. She also gave them two further tests: one in which they had to guess which adult in a pair was “really, really smart”, and another where they had to match attributes like “smart” or “nice” to pictures of unfamiliar men and women.
The results were revealing. The 5 year-old boys and girls associated the “smart” person with their own gender. But among those aged 6 or 7, only the boys still held to that view. At an age when girls tend to outperform boys at school, and when children in general show large positive biases towards their own in-groups, the girls became less likely than boys to attribute brilliance to their own gender.
As the boys continued to believe in their own intelligence, the girls – on average – tended to see everyone on more equal terms.
Bian also found that the older girls were less interested in games that were meant for “really, really smart” children.
The stereotype that brilliance and genius are male traits is common among adults. In various surveys, men rate their intelligence more favorably than women, and in a recent study of biology undergraduates, men overrated the abilities of male students above equally talented and outspoken women.
Bian’s study suggests that the seeds of this bias are planted at a very early age. Even by the age of 6, boys and girls are already diverging in who they think is smart.
The findings could help illuminate the challenge schools face in combating gender stereotypes, even though girls often outperform boys in school. Girls drop out of high school at a lower rate than boys. Women are more likely than men to enroll in college, and they earn more college degrees each year than men.
Other games were played and social tests were given during the study with similar results. The 5 year-olds were equally interested in participating, but the 6 and 7 year-old girls were less interested in the ones that relied on “being smart.” Both genders were attracted to the games requiring persistence and hard work.
In today’s business and scientific world, more educators, policymakers and corporations are making an effort to include women in leadership roles, but breaking through the stereotypes developed at such a young age can hinder girls and women in those and other disciplines.
Children model what they see. If they are raised in an environment that diminishes young girls’ achievements but rewards young boys for the same achievements, it often sets up a life-long struggle for them to feel and accept their own self-value.
Teachers also play an important role in encouraging all children to reach their highest achievement level.
Young girls, as well as young boys, should be recognized for their intelligence and encouraged to pursue science, technology, engineering and math studies – the rest of the world will benefit.
The research can't explain how these messages are getting to kids or how they could be changed, says Andrei Cimpian, a professor of psychology at New York University and an author of the study, He is planning a long-term study of young children that would measure environmental factors, including media exposure and parental beliefs. That would give a better idea of what factors predict the emergence of stereotypes, and what levers are available to change attitudes.
The study was published in the journal Science.
Story sources: Ed Yong, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/six-year-old-girls-already-have-gendered-beliefs-about-intelligence/514340/
Katherine Hobson, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/01/26/511801423/young-girls-are-less-apt-to-think-women-are-really-really-smart
Nick Anderson, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2017/01/26/research-shows-young-girls-are-less-likely-to-think-of-women-as-really-really-smart/?utm_term=.fc30e9030500&wpisrc=nl_sb_smartbrief