If you’ve ever wondered at what point girls (wrongly) begin to think that boys are smarter than them, a new study from Science has pretty solid evidence of the answer: Six. Not five. Not seven. Six.
Lin Bian, a psychology PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the study’s authors, conducted one part of her research by reading a story to 240 children between ages 5 and 7, describing the protagonist as “really, really smart.” Then she held up four pictures—two depicting men, and two depicting women. Which one was the story referring to?
Among 5-year-old girls, the “really, really smart” person was more likely to be a female image. But among the 6-year-olds, something had changed. From the Atlantic:
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 still held to that view. At an age when girls tend to outperform boys at school, and when children in general show large positive biases towards their own in-groups, the girls became less likely than boys to attribute brilliance to their own gender.
“It was really heartbreaking,” Bian conceded.
This idea that women lack inherent brilliance is a handicap we continue to carry through life, to the detriment of society generally. A related survey conducted by another of the study’s authors, Andrei Cimpian, found that college students were more likely to characterize their professors as “brilliant” and “genius” in fields with fewer women and black professors, like physics, math and philosophy. One likely reason for the low turnout is that women discourage themselves from entering those fields, convinced that men are naturally more capable.
And yet, many potential STEM standouts shoot themselves down before they even have a chance to try. Another test conducted by Bian allowed children to play two games—one for children who were “really, really smart,” and one for those who “try really, really hard.” As the Atlantic writes:
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.
“If we want to change young people’s minds and make things more equitable for girls, we really need to know when this problematic stereotype first emerges,” Bian said.
Researchers tend to think the bias begins at home. Cimpian cites an informal experiment conducted by an economist for the New York Times in 2014, which used anonymous Google search data to find that parents were more likely to research whether their sons were geniuses than their daughters. (For the record, parents of girls tended to investigate whether their offspring were overweight or ugly. Great.)
Though Bian and her team are investigating the basis for these early childhood beliefs, she concluded that “the answer won’t be simple.”