We often tell children they can be anything they want when they grow up. Unfortunately, societal pressures often dissuade young girls and women from pursuing certain activities and career paths. For example, there has long been an underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, despite the fact that women earn more bachelor degrees than men.
Research suggests this may in part be because “brilliance,” or gifted-ness, is implicitly thought of as a male quality, and women are therefore reluctant to join or persist in academic disciplines that are conveyed as requiring a high degree of brilliance. Researchers from four universities across the country asked a large number of academics in a variety of field about the degree to which they thought brilliance was important for success in their field. Fields that reported that brilliance was important for success, like philosophy, computer science and physics, were more likely underrepresent women compared to fields that thought brilliance was less important, like biology and sociology.
Most important, new research led by the same team of researchers shows that young girls may be attuned to the stereotype of “male = brilliance” by the time they’re six years old. The researchers read five- to seven-year-olds stories and had them play games that involved adults who were “really, really smart.” When asked whether the adults in the stories were male or female, five-year-old boys and girls were both more likely to say the protagonist was their own gender. For six- and seven-year olds, boys were more likely to say the protagonist was their gender, but the girls in this age group were now also more likely to say the protagonist was male. When children were told about two games, one for “children who are really, really smart” and one for “children who try really, really hard,” girls were less interested in the game for smart children compared to boys.
By the time they’re six years old, girls are beginning to develop ideas about who is brilliant, and those ideas influence their interest in and pursuit of certain activities. Although we know that gender inequalities exist, this research is the first to suggest that the underlying notion of brilliance that dissuades some girls from pursuing certain activities, studies or jobs develops at a very young age.
It’s always important to remind ourselves as educators, parents and researchers that a lot of what children learn is implicit — learned through social experiences rather than from being explicitly taught. Nevertheless, it may be necessary for parents to explicitly talk to their children about what makes someone smart, capable or brilliant — especially because learning such stereotypes can shape children’s decisions, narrowing their interests and potential career options from a young age.