As a mom of three girls, I am intrigued and disturbed by the results of a new study published in the journal Science that finds little girls are less confident than boys in their own brilliance by age 6.
Using the assumption that our society tends to equate men with brilliance more than women, researchers looked at 240 kids between the ages of 5 and 7 to see if they had the same belief. The children took part in groups in numerous activities.
In one, they heard a story about someone who was really smart and were asked to guess if that person was male or female. In another activity, researchers asked 160 kids if they'd rather play a game for really smart children or a game for kids who work really hard. Both boys and girls were interested in the game for the hard-workers. Girls showed less of an interest in the game for smart kids.
Researchers found that at age 5, both girls and boys view their genders positively. But by age 6 and 7, girls aren't as likely to associate being brilliant with themselves, and may even try to stay away from activities that require great intelligence. Even more worrisome: Girls' conceptions about their own intelligence have long-lasting effects on their lives.
"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 NYU psychology professor Andrei Cimpian, the paper's senior author, in a press release.
Added Sarah-Jane Leslie, professor of philosophy at Princeton University: "In earlier work, we found that adult women were less likely to receive higher degrees in fields thought to require 'brilliance,' and these new findings show that these stereotypes begin to impact girls' choices at a heartbreakingly young age."
While of course I am feeling icky all over about what these researchers found, I want to believe that how girls see themselves is the result of many, many factors. Yes, there are societal stereotypes, but even those I think are changing. Little girls have plenty of role models of brilliant women doing amazing things. Look at Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ivanka Trump, and the countless female leaders of companies.
I also believe that how girls are raised is an important factor. I am a working mom and I try to show my daughters that they can do anything, that there are no limits to what they can achieve. Why, just the other day my 3-year-old informed me she wanted to be a mermaid when she grew up and I said, "Why not?"
But in all seriousness, when my older girls ask why they can't magically go up and down our stairs, I'll say, "Maybe you can invent a way." I also make it clear to my children that school is the most important thing.
It's not that I have all the answers; far from it! But I am not going to let a study convince me that my girls are going to be held back in life. I just acknowledge there are obstacles for little girls and choose to focus on the positive progress we are making as a society.
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.