Study Finds That Gender Stereotypes of Intellectual Abilities Are Apparent at an Early Age

A new study by scholars at New York University, Princeton University, and the University of Illinois, finds that by age 6, girls are less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender.

In an experiment, children ages 5 to 7 were asked about their perception of the intellectual abilities of men and women in a story that was read to them. For children at age 5, boys and girls were equally likely to rate their own gender positively. But by age 7, girls were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their gender.

A second experiment asked boys and girls to select to play either a game for “children who are really, really smart” or a game for “children who try really hard.” Girls were significantly less likely to choose the game for children who are really, really smart.

Sarah-Jane Leslie, the Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University and a co-author of the study, stated that academics who wish to diversify their disciplines should adjust the messages they send to students concerning what’s required for success — such as staying away from words like “brilliant,” “genius” and “gifted,” and instead emphasizing to their students the importance of hard work and dedication.

“Changing the messages to the students is only one part of it,” added Professor Leslie. “People who wish to increase diversity may need to work to change the culture of the entire field. We should share personal anecdotes — not just with our students, but also with our colleagues — about how we overcame challenges, setbacks and failures along the way. It can be tempting to present oneself as ‘effortlessly brilliant,’ but maybe we need to resist this temptation.”

Professor Leslie joined the faculty at Princeton University in 2006 and was promoted to full professor in 2013. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey. She earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University.

The study, “Gender Stereotypes About Intellectual Ability Emerge Early and Influence Children’s Interests,” was published in the journal Science. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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