“A teacher affects eternity. He or she can never tell where his or her influence stops.” – Henry Adams
Whether we have sons or daughters, we want our children to maximize their potential and cultivate their natural talents, innate gifts, and proven “knack” for anything from language to leadership. But a spate of recent research has shown that by the age of six—in other words, by the time most kids are in kindergarten, barely on the threshold of grade school—girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant; and they start to rule out certain activities as “not for them” by virtue of not being smart enough. They may be absorbing cultural stereotypes about brilliance. If they watch television, they may realize that geniuses portrayed on television are almost exclusively men (think Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”). And if they watch their parents, they may be picking up on the stereotypes that Mom and Dad imperceptibly uphold and advance.
Think modern parents aren’t guilty of gender bias? Aggregate data in 2014 from Google searches reveal that American parents are two and a half times more likely to Google “is my son a genius” than “is my daughter a genius.” And this is despite the fact that girls consistently show larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences from an early age.
Parents also Google “Is my daughter overweight?” roughly twice as much as “Is my son overweight?” Again, this is fueled by bias – not reality. 33 percent of boys, and 30 percent of girls, are overweight. But parents see, and ruminate over, what they want to see.
In an Illinois study, ninety-six children were told two stories: one about a “really, really smart” person and one about a “really, really nice person.” The children were shown four pictures (two boys, two girls) and asked to guess which one might be the person in each story. At age five, boys and girls were equally likely to associate intelligence with their own gender. But at six, the likelihood of girls picking other girls as the “really, really smart” one sharply declined. Many girls, and most boys, picked the boy. And this remained consistent across all races, parent education and family incomes.
Another test asked children to play a game that was either for “really, really smart” people or one that was for children who “try really, really hard.” Girls were less interested in the former game, indicating a strong preference for the latter.
All the more reason for parents and teachers to make a conscious effort to battle ingrained, even unconscious stereotypes; encourage girls to develop broad interests; and take as much an interest in our daughters’ minds as in their bodies. E-commerce giants like Amazon has launched a subscription service for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) toys. Despite recent gains for women in the workforce, women in STEM are still under-represented. We can change that with a few adjustments to our thinking.