Six-year-old girls are less likely than boys to believe their gender is poised for brilliance, and they better tend to veer away from activities that require those smarts, a new study has found.

It’s an attitude shift from when they were age 5, a time when they are just as likely as boys to deem their own gender brilliant and willingly take on relevant activities.

These are the results of new research discussed in the journal Science, which detailed how gender stereotypes start to affect girls’ self-perception as well as inclinations, which can potentially limit their career choices and aspirations during adulthood.

Who’s Really, Really Smart?

To find out how early the stereotype that males are more likely to be brilliant begins to shape youth’s behavior, the team experimented on the gender perceptions among 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old children.

In an experiment, 96 kids were told a child-friendly tale about a “really, really smart” person but whose gender was unidentified. The participants were then told to guess who among the two males and two females the person was and were shown pairs of adults and asked to pick which adult in the pair qualified as “really, really smart.”

The kids also completed puzzles where they associated objects or qualities, such as “smart,” with pictures of males and females.

The findings: kids’ perceptions of brilliance at those ages undergo quite drastic shifts. At 5 years old, both girls and boys linked brilliance with their own gender on about the same level, but when they turn 6 or 7, girls became significantly less likely than boys to link the attribute to their own gender.

The results held in the next experiment, where they asked 144 kids to rate both adults and their fellow kids in the tasks.

When asked as to who achieved the best grades in school, older girls emerged more likely than older boys to prefer their own gender as those with the best marks. This is aligned with real-world situations where girls get better grades than boys at such age, concluded the authors.

“Girls’ ideas about who is brilliant are not rooted in their perceptions of who performs well in school,” they wrote.

Stereotypes And Perceptions Early In Life

In another scenario, a groups of kids played a board game, branded for some as for kids “who are really, really smart” while for others as for those “who try really, really hard.” Girls ages 6 and 7 were on the same level as boys when it comes to enjoying the game for those who try, but much less likely to say they enjoy the game for smart kids.

For lead author and psychology graduate student Lin Bian of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, changing young people’s thinking and to make matters “more equitable” for girls, it is important to know when the stereotypes first surface and when to intervene to avoid the negative effects on women’s college and career choices.

The stereotype that men perform at science and math better exists even in prestigious higher education, where Harvard president Lawrence Summers, back in 2005, said during his speech that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” are to be pinpointed for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences.

The Fawcett Society in the United Kingdom argued that part of the issue is the gender pay gap as well as early differences such as blues and superheroes versus pink and princesses.

"This is a massive issue and it is holding us all, but particularly girls, back,” said its CEO Sam Smethers.

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