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Who’s 'really, really smart'? Girls starting picking boys over girls by age 5 and the gap widens over the next two years, according to a study.
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Girls feel less smart than boys at a young age

The answers given by young girls to these questions were telling:

Which person is “really, really smart?” And which person is “really, really nice?”

As you might expect, more young girls consider males to be “smart” and females to be “nice.” According to a new study, this gap is noticeable as soon as age 5 and grows over the next two years.

“The findings suggest that gendered notions of brilliance are acquired early and have an immediate effect on children’s interests,” authors of the study explain.

The findings by three U.S. academics have implications for the workforce, as well as broader questions of gender perception.

Women and work

While women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they are underrepresented in management. Women make up 15 percent of the directors of companies in the Russell 3000, according to Equilar, a research firm. Only about 4 percent are chief executives, according to a survey by the investment banking firm Credit Suisse.

Equilar estimated it will take almost 40 years at the current pace for women to achieve parity in the boardroom.

The new study of young girls’ attitudes hints at some deeply seated perceptions that may influence those workplace trends.

“Many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age,” the researchers said. “This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate.”

What the study found

Researchers gave children aged 5, 6 and 7 three tasks, each designed to determine whether the children considered boys or girls smarter. Using pictures, games and puzzles, they sought to check the stereotype the researchers called “brilliance = males.”

While differences in perception were fairly narrow at age 5, they had widened a year later.

“Girls aged 6 and 7 were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender,” the authors wrote. “Thus, the “brilliance = males” stereotype may be familiar to, and endorsed by, children as young as 6.”

If you have concerns about your child’s perceptions of his or her competence, or the competence of others, talk with your health care provider about ways to foster a healthy self-image. You can find a Providence provider in our directory.

Deeper reading

The study, “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests,” was published in the journal Science. Supplemental materials, which describe the tasks given to children in the study, can also be found in Science.

The U.S. Department of Labor has a page that provides statistics on women in the workforce.

Among its findings:

  • The three most common occupations for women are secretary, elementary or middle school teacher and registered nurse.
  • Women’s earning ratio is 78.6 percent that of men, for a 21.4 percent “wage gap.”
  • The unemployment rate for women in 2015 was 5.2 percent, slightly better than for men, whose unemployment rate was 5.4 percent.
  • Among women of working age, 51.7 percent work.
Who’s 'really, really smart'? Girls starting picking boys over girls by age 5 and the gap widens over the next two years, according to a study.