Girls assimilate stereotypes associating brilliance with men rather than women by the time they are six-years-old, potentially limiting their aspirations and impacting their future careers, scientists say.
Tests on young children in the United States also showed girls of six were more likely than boys to avoid activities said to require brilliance.
“Our society tends to associate brilliance with men more than with women, and this notion pushes women away from jobs that are perceived to require brilliance,” lead researcher Lin Bian of the University of Illinois said.
“We wanted to know whether young children also endorse these stereotypes.”
The researchers tested children aged five to seven. In one experiment the children heard a story about a person who was “really, really smart” and were asked to guess who it was about from a selection of male and female characters.
They were also shown pairs of men and women and asked to guess which one was “really, really smart”.
The results showed boys and girls aged five both viewed their own gender positively, but girls aged six and seven were markedly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender.
The differences were similar across children from various socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
“Even though the stereotype equating brilliance with men doesn’t match reality, it might nonetheless take a toll on girls’ aspirations and on their eventual careers,” said New York University psychology professor Andrei Cimpian, lead author of the study published in the journal Science this week.
Researchers also looked at whether perceptions around brilliance and gender shaped children’s interests.
A group of six and seven-year-olds were shown two very similar games – one described as for “children who are really, really smart” and the other for “children who try really, really hard”.
Girls were significantly less interested than boys in the game for smart children, but there was no difference between the boys’ and girls’ interest in the game for hard-working children.
Another test found five-year-old boys and girls displayed equal interest in games for smart children, but six-year-old girls demonstrated less interest than boys their age.
“These findings show that these stereotypes begin to impact girls’ choices at a heartbreakingly young age,” said Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie who contributed to the research.