Girls Lose Sight of Own ‘Brilliance’ at Young Age

6:20 minutes

Photo by Maria Fleischmann / World Bank/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo by Maria Fleischmann / World Bank/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s a persistent stereotype that associates higher-level intelligence with men, which can impact women’s career choices later on.

At what age do women and girls start to internalize this stereotype, and how does it happen? New research in Science has found that girls are less likely to assign “brilliance” to their own gender starting somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6.

Princeton philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie explains how these findings can help us root out the causes of this gender stereotype, and how we can combat it.

Some resources for engaging girls in STEM:

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: The new movie Hidden Figures about unheralded women mathematicians, again, focuses the question on why aren’t there more women in science and math. Well, some new insight has surfaced. New research finds that girls as young as six or seven start to believe that quote being really, really smart is for boys, not for girls. And it may be costing them educational opportunities, career choices, and more. That study was published in the journal Science.

Here to talk about these recent findings is a co-author, Dr. Sarah-Jane Leslie, philosophy professor, Founding Director of Princeton University’s program in cognitive science. She’s based in Princeton, New Jersey. Welcome to Science Friday.

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: I’m so delighted to be here. Thank you so much for having me on the show.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this study. How do we know what girls think about their gender’s capacity for brilliance?

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: Well, the way that we tested the kids in our study was that we looked at five, six and seven-year-old children. And what we did in the first part of our study was just tell these kids a story about someone that we knew who was really, really smart. And we made sure that this story was told in a way that there were no gender clues whatsoever. So there were no pronouns or no other factors that would identify the gender of the person we were talking about.

We then showed them four pictures of individuals that they had never seen before– either two men and two women or if we were talking about children, two boys and two girls. We then just asked them which of these people do you think is the person I was talking about in my story? And what we found was that for five-year-olds, girls and boys were just as likely to pick a member of their own gender as being that person who was the really smart one in the story. But by the time girls and boys reach age six, we find that girls are significantly less likely than boys to identify a member of their own gender as the protagonist in the story.

Another way of putting it is that if we compare five-year-old girls to six-year-old girls, we find that the six-year-olds are much less likely than the five-year-old girls to identify a girl as the one who can be really smart.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI– Public Radio International. Talking with us Sara-Jane Leslie. What happens in that one year?

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: Well, a year is a very long time in a young child’s life. And they’re sensitive to all sorts of social cues around them. Unfortunately, little kids are like sponges that soak up stereotypes. We think that very often adult cues will not be picked up on by children that are too subtle. But children will hone right in on them.

If we look to popular culture to see how brilliant people are portrayed, we have examples such as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Will Hunting from that movie Good Will Hunting all portrayed as effortlessly brilliant and overwhelmingly male. These are the sorts of cues little kids, even as young as six can pick up on.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I went to see the film Hidden Figures. I saw it in an early matinee. And I was pleasantly surprised to see how many girls and kids were in watching that movie.

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: That’s fantastic. I think if we want to diversify science, we need to expose girls to these sorts of role models. In another part of our research, we wanted to see whether or not these stereotypes actually impact girls. And so whether it could be contributing to the gender imbalances in math and science.

And to look at that, we ask kids about their interest in a completely novel activity game. And for the first part of the study, we describe this game as being for kids who are really hardworking. We said only hardworking kids can be good at this game. And there we found no gender difference. Boys and girls equally enthusiastic about that game.

And then everything else is the same. But we just changed the wording ever so slightly. We said to kids this game is only for kids who are really, really smart. Only smart kids can be good at this game. And there we found that by the age of six, little girls were much less enthusiastic than boys about that game, much more motivated to engage with it.

When we look to society more generally the sorts of scientific and mathematical endeavors portrayed in a film like Hidden Figures, we see those sorts of activities as being portrayed as for very smart people. These cumulative effect of young girls being less likely to want to engage with activities that are seen as for smart people lead to cumulative gender imbalances over time.

IRA FLATOW: You found that boys and girls were equally interested in tasks that were for really hard working kids? Can something positive come from this?

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: Absolutely. Absolutely. So we were very heartened to see that when the same activity was just described as being for hardworking kids, boys and girls were equally enthusiastic about it. And more generally, work by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues has suggested that really everyone benefits from emphasizing the need for hard work, dedication, and skill development.

The sort of cultural myths that some people are just effortlessly brilliant isn’t helpful. It’s not productive. It’s also not realistic. People who succeed in math and science work incredibly hard at it. And they get to where they are by really sticking with it. Sending kids those sorts of messages I think points the way towards really rectifying this issue and broadening the horizons that our little girls can see.

IRA FLATOW: So don’t assume that well, you don’t have any innate traits to be a scientist. Don’t say that kind of language.

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: Exactly. Don’t say anything that suggests that only a certain kind of person can be a scientist. And don’t say anything that suggests only innately brilliant people can be scientists. Let’s talk about the process of science. Let’s talk about the hard work, effort, and dedication that goes into it.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Leslie, thank you very much. A very interesting study– something we should keep talking about. Sara-Jane Leslie, philosophy professor at Princeton. Thanks for joining us this hour.

DR. SARA-JANE LESLIE: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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