Six years old.
Six. That's the age where kids are learning to ride bikes, playing tee ball, bringing home arts and crafts, and practicing their reading and writing skills. It's also the age that, according to new research, children begin internalizing gender stereotypes about intelligence and achievement.
According to this article in The Atlantic, a recent study concluded that "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." Despite the girls in the study recognizing that girls get better grades and show stronger academic abilities, they still were far less likely than boys to show interest in or believe they could participate in games meant for "really smart children."
Unfortunately, other research shows that this gender bias regarding intelligence doesn't go away and has long-term consequences. One of the clearest outcomes of this bias is the lack of women in science, math, physics, engineering, and other STEM fields. The article explains that success in STEM fields is frequently attributed to innate, internal brilliance, and innate, internal brilliance is most frequently considered a male trait (neither of which is fundamentally true).
As for the "why" this gender stereotype about intelligence occurs, researchers are still gathering data, but have found that, in addition to the academically successful characters and people they read about in books and see in movies largely being male, parents and teachers also play a big role. In fact, studies have shown that parents tend to believe their sons are brighter than their daughters.
So how can we go about addressing this problem? From the article:
"'We have to be more deliberate about presenting examples of brilliant women to girls and boys as young as five to help them avoid developing this association,' says Eddy. 'Brilliant women exist, like Rosalind Franklin, Shirley Jackson, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, and Katherine G. Johnson, whose story is popularized in Hidden Figures. We need to be talking about them more.'
'We can also emphasize the importance of hard work and effort in addition to brilliance,' says Bian. Psychologists like Carol Dweck have shown that many disadvantaged groups, including poor students and people of colour, suffer disproportionately from beliefs that intelligence is innate and fixed. 'Simply changing disadvantaged high-school students’ perception of the malleability of IQ can cause substantial differences in drop-out rates,' says Gopnik."
In schools, this could start with holding the same high expectations and setting the same standards for all students, regardless of gender, race, or income level. It would mean rewarding hard work and growth, not just high grades. It would mean incorporating reading materials into lessons that span a wider range of experiences and perspectives.
It's Women's History Month, but how many famous women can you name who've made their mark on the world through academic achievement? How many men? It's long past time for that to change, so that our six-year-old daughters grow up knowing that they can be astronomers and civil engineers and financial analysts.