New research published last week in the journal Science revealed some discouraging findings for parents trying to instill a sense of gender equality in their kids. The study found that at age five, both boys and girls associate innate intelligence more with their own gender: girls are more likely to say that girls are “really, really smart,” and boys tend to think fellow boys are “really, really smart.” But for girls, their answers change after kindergarten, around the time they turn six.
The study (which was actually a series of studies) was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, New York University and Princeton University. When the researchers asked the same question to the six-year-old girls—whether a girl or a boy would be more likely to be “really, really smart,” or who they thought would be better at an activity that’s for “really, really smart” children—they were now much more likely to conclude that boys are smarter and better suited for the challenging activity.
Lin Bian, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois and the lead author of the study, calls the results “heartbreaking.” She says psychologists have long known that adults tend to associate genius with men, and assume that men are better suited for fields people tend to see as requiring brilliance (such as math, philosophy or physics), “but now we know that kids at a very young age have already learned to associate brilliance with males,” says Bian.
Rebecca Raby, a professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University and co-author of the book, Smart Girls: Success, School and the Myth of Post-Feminism, says it’s important to avoid generalizing too broadly from a study based on a predominantly white, middle-class cohort of children from the American Midwest (a limitation the authors of the study also acknowledge). Race and class are also important factors when it comes to stereotypes about intelligence, says Raby. But she is interested to see that some of the attitudes and behaviours she’s observed in her own research with teenagers are clearly already there with younger kids. “It illustrates that these inequalities start very early.”
Research into why age six is such a turning point is ongoing. Both Bian and Raby say there are likely several factors at play, including messaging from teachers, peers and media. And even if we think we’re treating boys and girls the same, they say parents are often unintentionally reinforcing gendered stereotypes at home, all of which can have major impacts on girls’ aspirations, choice of activities, self-image and opportunities. Here are Bian and Raby’s tips for parents on how to push back against these gender stereotypes.
1. Think about what you praise in girls vs. in boys
In Bian’s study, at the same age that girls became less likely to think girls could be “really, really smart,” they also became more likely to say that girls are “really, really nice.” There’s nothing wrong with being nice (or pretty, or feminine) but if girls are constantly being praised for being nice, while boys are praised for being smart, this starts to shape their ideas about how they’re expected to act.
“The typical thing is for girls to be praised for attractiveness and boys to be praised for fitness and intellectual abilities,” says Raby. “We need to think about how we’re praising our children and how we’re talking about other children’s abilities when we’re around our kids.”
2. Focus on effort and opportunity
In some ways, these latest findings seem to contradict previous research that showed girls tend to do better than boys academically. Bian says that when the children in the study were asked who is most likely to do well at school, girls were just as likely as boys to select their own gender. (This was especially true for the older girls in the study.) However, success at school isn’t necessarily the same thing as innate brilliance.“Kids see that girls are doing better in school, but they don’t necessarily associate that success with higher intelligence,” says Bian.
Bian says the discrepancy between girls’ ideas about who is naturally smart and who does well in school might have something to do with kids’ ideas about hard work. When the children were asked who would be better at a task that required someone to “try really, really hard,” both girls and boys chose girls. Bian doesn’t find these results surprising, explaining that pop culture tends to feature a lot of naturally brilliant male protagonists (think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, or Dr. House). When there’s a smart female character (like Hermione Granger or Lisa Simpson), there is usually a strong focus on all the hard work and practice she puts in to achieve that success.
Bian says parents should try to emphasize and praise hard work and effort equally in both boys and girls. So instead of saying, “You’re so smart,” try: “You worked really hard on that.”
With her own kids, Raby says she emphasizes effort and hard work, but also talks to them about opportunities and privilege, so they can begin to understand all the advantages they’ve had to help them succeed. She wants them to understand that if they do well and another kid doesn’t, it doesn’t mean the other kid isn’t smart or that they didn’t try hard enough.
3. Be careful how you talk about women’s abilities
Be mindful of how you talk about what women and men tend to be good at. If you’re a mother, that includes what we say about ourselves. “We can try to counteract stereotypes through conversation and through modelling,” says Raby. “Kids notice when their parents make comments about math being too hard, or when their mom shies away from a difficult technical task.” And she says dads can help do similar modelling for boys that counteracts male stereotypes. “If boys see dads read, they’re less likely to form the idea that reading is just for girls,” says Raby.
4. Seek out smart female role models (for both your daughters and your sons)
Bian says parents should try to expose their children—whether it’s your son or your daughter—to women in books, movies, TV and in their own lives who have jobs in fields that tend to be associated with brilliance: scientists, philosophy professors, doctors and engineers, for example. “Previous research has shown that having a female role model to look up to shows women and girls that it’s possible to be successful in a field that is associated with requiring brilliance.”
Along the same lines, it’s also important to actively seek out and highlight role models who are black, indigenous, people of colour, LGBT, disabled and from lower income backgrounds, since children’s understanding of themselves and belief in their own abilities is shaped by multiple identities, not just gender.