Girls as young as six can be led to believe that men are inherently more intelligent and talented than women, according to a study published this week in the journal “Science”.
"As a society, we associate a high level of intellectual ability with males more than females, and our research suggests that this association is picked up by children as young 6 and 7," said Andrei Cimpian, associate professor in the psychology department at New York University. Cimpian co-authored the study, which looked at 400 children aged between five and seven.
In the first part of the study, girls and boys were told a story about a person who is "really, really smart" and then asked to identify that person among the photos of two women and two men.
The people in the photos were dressed professionally, looked the same age and appeared equally happy.
At the age of five, both boys and girls tended to associate brilliance with their own gender, meaning that most girls chose women and most boys chose men.
But as they became older and began attending school, the children studied started to endorse gender stereotypes.
At six and seven years old, girls were "significantly less likely" to pick women. The results were similar when the youngsters were shown photos of children.
Interestingly, when asked to select children who look like they do well in school overall, as opposed to simply being clever, girls tended to pick girls, which means that their perceptions of success are not based purely on academic performance.
"These stereotypes float free of any objective markers of achievement and intelligence," Cimpian said.
Differences in aspirations
In the second part of the study, children were introduced to two new board games, one described as an activity "for children who are really, really smart" and the other one "for children who try really, really hard."
Five-year-old girls and boys were equally likely to want to play the game for smart kids, but at age 6 and 7, boys still wanted to play that game, while girls opted for the other activity.
"There isn't anything about the game itself that becomes less interesting for girls, but rather it's the description of it as being for kids that are really, really smart," the study said.
As a result, believing that they are not as gifted as boys, girls tend to shy away from demanding university degrees, leading to big differences in aspirations and career choices between men and women.
"These stereotypes discourage women's pursuit of many prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance," the authors wrote.
It is still unclear where the stereotypes come from. Parents, teachers, peers and the media are the usual suspects, Cimpian said.
Achieving intellectual potential
But it is evident that action must be taken so that these biases don't curtail girls' professional aspirations.
"Instill the idea that success in any line of work is not an innate ability, whatever it is, but rather putting your head down, being passionate about what you are doing," Cimpian said, adding that exposure to successful women who can serve as role models also helps.
Toy companies like Mattel, maker of the Barbie doll, have taken steps to try to reduce gender stereotypes.
Mattel's "You can be anything" Barbie campaign tells girls that they can be paleontologists, veterinarians or professors, among other careers. The campaign also holds out the possibility that a girl can imagine herself to be a fairy princess.
Rebecca S. Bigler, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, described Cimpian's study "as exceptionally nice work”.
She suggested that the stereotypes develop in early elementary school when students are exposed to famous scientists, composers and writers, the "geniuses" of history, who are overwhelmingly men. Bigler said it is important to combine that knowledge with information on gender discrimination.
"We need to explain to children that laws were created specifically to prevent women from becoming great scientists, artists, composers, writers, explorers, and leaders," Bigler added. "Children will then be ... more likely to believe in their own intellectual potential and contribute to social justice and equally by pursuing these careers themselves."
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2017-01-27