Skip to main content

By Age Six, Girls Start to Associate Brilliance With Boys

New research finds gender stereotyping starts very early in life.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

If you are raising a little girl, chances are you’re working hard to make sure she believes in herself and doesn’t think of herself as a second-class citizen with a second-rate mind.

Unfortunately, she is also receiving all sorts of cues from society that reinforce the stereotype that brilliance is something only boys possess. And new research finds that message sinks in surprisingly early in life—around first grade.

“Children’s ideas about brilliance exhibit rapid changes over the period from ages 5 to 7,” a research team led by University of Illinois psychologist Lin Bian writes in the journal Science. “The ‘brilliance=males’ stereotype may be familiar to, and endorsed by, children as young as 6.”

What’s more, the results provide evidence that “young children’s emerging notions about who is likely to be brilliant are one of the factors that guide their decisions about which activities to pursue.”

Bian and her colleagues explore these troubling dynamics in a series of studies. In the first, 96 children ages five to seven (most from middle-class backgrounds) participated in three tasks designed to reveal internalized gender bias.

“In Task One, children were told a brief story about a person who was ‘really, really smart,’” they write. “Children were then asked which of four unfamiliar adults (two men, two women) were the protagonist.”

“In Task Two, children saw several pairs of same- or different-gender adults and guessed which adult in each pair was ‘really, really smart,’” the researchers continue. “In Task Three, children completed three novel puzzles in which they had to guess which objects or attributes (including being smart) best corresponded to pictures of unfamiliar men and women.”

Analyzing the results of all three, the researchers found “girls aged 6 and 7 were significantly less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender.” This bias was not found among five-year-olds, meaning the stereotype started to sink in around age six.

Oddly, “girls’ ideas about who is brilliant are not rooted in their perceptions of who performs well in school,” the researchers add. The girls predicted their same-gender peers were just as likely as boys to make good grades.

A second, similar study replicated the results of the first. A third examined the results of this stereotyped thinking.

“Sixty-four children aged 6 and 7 were introduced to two novel games, one said to be ‘for children who are really, really smart,’ and the other for ‘children who try really, really hard.’ They were then asked four questions to measure how much each appealed to them,” the researchers write.

“Girls were less interested than boys in the game for smart children, but not in the game for hard-working children.”

The researchers conclude that “Many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age…. This stereotype beings 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.”

Perhaps it’s time to lobby media outlets to portray “brilliant” thinkers as women as well as men.