By Shikha Sreenivas
A study published in the journal Science by Lin Bian found that gender stereotyping emerges in girls as young as six, who begin to believe that men are inherently smarter and more talented than women. Bian found that till children are five years old, they still associate brilliance with their own gender.
But children aged six 0r seven, associate brilliance and genius as male traits. In one of her experiments, Bian offered 160 children a chance play either of two games. One of these were for those “who are really, really smart” and the other for those who “try really, really hard”. She found that at the age of five, both boys and girls are equally distributed in their attraction to the two games. But amongst the children who are aged six, girls are less interested than boys in the game for the “really, really smart” children.
Bin wanted to see if the distribution of women and men across academic disciplines was affected by perceptions and stereotypes of intellectual brilliance. This stereotype that brilliance and genius is a male trait is quite common, and the reason for various forms of gender discrimination from the pay gap to why it is difficult for women in fields like science and academics.
Bian’s study is an indicator of how early these biases form. In another experiment, Bian read out a story to 240 children whose ages ranged from five to seven. “There are lots of people at the place where I work, but there is one person who is really special. This person is really, really smart. This person figures out how to do things quickly and comes up with answers faster and better than anyone else. This person is really, really smart.”
Bian then showed them pictures of two adult women and two adult men. She asked them to guess the protagonist of the story, and which adult they were were talking about. The five year olds associated brilliance with their own gender, but those one or two years older than them, showed different results. While boys continued to associate brilliance with their own gender, the girls did not.
This does have an influence on the career choices these children will go on to make. The German Physics Society estimates that only one-fifth of physics students are female. Lin Bian and her team of researchers suggest that women do not have the confidence to choose these fields which are associated with men, like physics, mathematics and even philosophy.
Perhaps, it is not only gender stereotyping at work here, but what Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington calls gender arrogance, which persists in boys and disappears in girls. She suggests that the issue isn’t which gender thinks their smarter, but both genders thinking they are equally smart. And if it’s the latter, it is the boys’ beliefs we should focus on changing.
A professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Rebeca S Bigler suggested that these stereotypes form in early elementary school as students are exposed to famous scientists, composers and writers as the “geniuses” of history.
Children can learn stereotypes from numerous sources — parents, advertisements on TV and the streets, the films and television shows they watch. But a way to defeat these stereotypes, is to address them within the educational system itself. This would involve the re-writing of so many subjects as we learned them — from history to mathematics, from literature to physics, to bring out the forgotten women, and also explain what kind of forces of discrimination and oppression they faced, as the reason why their work is rarely acknowledged.