“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. 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.”
Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, read this story out to 240 children between the ages of 5 and 7. She then showed them pictures of four adults – two men and two women – and asked the children to guess which person she was talking about. 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 stark. Among the 5-year-olds, both boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender. But among those aged 6 or 7, only the boys maintained that view. Girls aged 6 and 7 typically attributed brilliance to the opposite sex.
Bian then offered 160 children a chance to play two new games—one for children “who are really, really smart” and another for those who “try really, really hard”. At the age of 5, girls and boys were equally attracted to both games. But among those aged 6 or older, the girls were less interested than the boys in the game for smart kids (but not the one for hard-working ones). “They’d go from being really enthusiastic to saying: ‘Oh I don’t want to play it, this isn’t a game for me,’” says Bian. And those who had most strongly assimilated the stereotype of male brilliance showed the lowest interest in the smart game.
“The stereotype has an immediate impact,” she adds. “In the long-term it will steer away many young women from careers that are thought to require brilliance.”
Why do these beliefs occur? It’s not to do with actual ability. At that age, girls tend to outclass their male peers—and the girls in Bian’s study knew it. When she showed them pictures of four children and asked them to guess who got the best grades, the older girls were actually more likely to pick girls than the older boys were to pick boys. “Everyone agreed that girls do better in school but that didn’t seem to matter,” says Bian.