Girls Discouraged from STEM Careers at Age 6

It has been more than 50 years since the civil rights act was introduced. The law prevents women, among others, from being discriminated against in the workplace. It seems to have been successful, considering the US State Department for Commerce reports 50 percent of jobs are now occupied by women.

However, gender ratios within industries are still very divided. Women fill less than a quarter of jobs specific to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Recent research published in Science suggests that women don’t pursue careers in these fields as often because of a gender stereotype they acquire as a young child.

Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, along with two fellow colleagues, conducted a series of studies on a group of 400 children ages five to seven. Their findings reveal that girls as young as six years old believe more often than not that boys are smarter than girls.

In the first part of the study, girls and boys listened to a story about an individual who is “really, really smart.” No clues were given about the person’s gender or identity. The children were then asked to choose between four photos, two men and two women, who they thought the story was about. Five-year-old girls and boys frequently associated the brilliant person in the story to a person their own gender. Although, at ages six and seven, both girls and boys generally associated the story with a photo of a man.

What’s interesting is that when the six and seven-year-olds were asked about school performance, the children more often choose photos of girls over their own gender. This key difference reveals that the children don’t necessarily view academic success as a key indicator of intelligence.

The last part of the study introduced the kids to two board games. One game was said to be for “children who are really, really, smart” while the other was for “children who try really, really hard.” Five-year-old girls and boys both displayed equal interest in wanting to play the game for smart kids. But girls age six and seven began to shy away from the smart kid game and focused more often on the latter. Bian suggests this demonstrates 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’s study provides evidence that children assimilate the notion that boys are smarter than girls very early in life. It also displays that the stereotype can dictate a child’s choices once that idea is believed. Researchers are still unclear about why children acquire the stereotype. They hypothesize it may stem from children entering elementary school, becoming more exposed to their peers, the public and the media.

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