Brilliance Stereotypes

Brilliance Stereotypes Photo Credit: Dominique Feldwick-Davis. CC0 License via Pexels

Gender stereotypes about extreme intelligence take hold in the early school years.


Girls and bias. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Before their seventh birthday, girls already start believing the stereotype that boys are brainier, which could decrease their likelihood of pursuing fields like science and engineering. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researcher Lin Bian and her colleagues report in Science magazine that 5-year-old girls associate extreme smarts with females most of the time. But after they turn six, their views—along with their interestshave shifted.

We asked boys and girls if they would like to play a game for kids who are “really, really smart.” And girls became less interested in it compared to boys at the age of 6 and 7.

This, despite doing better than boys in school. Bian says emphasizing hard work rather than raw genius could encourage more girls to stick with challenging subjects, and benefit boys as well. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Parents, teachers, and policy makers have been trying for a long time to fight against gender stereotypes that affect boys and girls, especially when it comes to girls’ intellectual abilities. This recent study shows that we all still have a ways to go before these stereotypes are overcome.

To conduct this study, Lin Bian and her colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested 400 children, half boys and half girls, ranging from five to seven years in a series of studies. In one experiment, the children heard a story about a person who was "really, really smart" and were then were shown pictures of four unfamiliar adults (two men and two women) and were asked to guess which was the story's protagonist. They were also asked to guess which adult in a series of paired different-gender adults was "really, really smart." Five-year-old boys and girls all viewed their gender positively.

Once they got to be six or seven years old, however, girls were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their gender. For example, among six year olds, boys chose people of their own gender as “really, really smart” 65% of the time while girls only selected their gender as brilliant 48% of the time. These age differences were largely similar across children of various socioeconomic and racial-ethnic backgrounds.

In another set of experiments, researchers wanted to know whether these perceptions shape children's interests. Working with another group of boys and girls age six and seven, the researchers asked about their interests in playing two different kinds of games. They explained that one kind was for children who were really, really smart while the other kind was for children who tried really, really hard. The researchers found that girls were significantly less interested than boys in the game for smart children; however, there was no difference between the boys' and girls' interest in the game for hard-working children.

Lin Bian and her colleagues hope that their research will help in the development of interventions to prevent stereotypes from affecting women’s career choices, adding that previous research has suggested the low proportion of women in fields such as maths and physics could be down to brilliance being lauded as the key to success.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How many children were involved in these studies and were they evenly divided between boys and girls?
  2. What ages were the children?
  3. What kinds of questions did the researchers ask the students?
  4. How did five-year-old boys and girls view their genders?
  5. Did the six- and seven-year-old boys and girls view their genders in the same way?
  6. What do you think can be done to help overcome gender biases?

If you want to find out more about research that looks at the issue of gender, you can listen to Teaching Math Anxiety.

Going Further

For Educators

You can help your students build on the concepts in this lesson by leading them through several other Science Updates features in the Exploring Behavior: Research on Gender Differences.

You also can inspire girls to pursue a career in medicine or science by leading them through the Women in Medicine: Past and Future Science NetLinks lesson.

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