The latest study on gender stereotypes focuses on why girls appear to begin believing boys are the smarter sex when they are between 6 and 7 years old. To be clear, the study published in Science magazine only reached the conclusion that girls around this age will believe boys to be smarter, not why. Before we get into that, let’s review the science of the study as explained at Café Mom:
Published in the journal Science, the study used a variety of tests on 400 children of both sexes to determine their attitudes about gender. In one experiment, researchers told the kids a story about someone who was “really, really smart,” being sure not to give away any hints about that person’s gender.
After the story, the kids were asked to look at pictures of four adults (two men and two women) and choose the person they thought the story was about. At 5, both boys and girls picked out characters of their own gender. But among the 6-year-olds, the results were drastically different — both boys and girls identified the male characters as smart.
Even more upsetting (if that’s possible): When asked to engage in activities designed for “really, really smart kids,” at the ages of 6 and 7, the girls declined (whereas at 5, they were still interested). So not only are girls this young harboring self-defeating beliefs, but these beliefs are also already affecting their behavior. (It’s okay, you can go ahead and bang your head against the wall in frustration right about now.)
No thanks. I’ll just read the study for myself instead. While the explanation of the tests was fair enough, the writers at Café Mom neglected to include the scientists’ failed assumptions for why girls between the ages of 6 and 7 suddenly appear to believe boys are brilliant. The scientists first assumed that the boys started school later and therefore had “inflated” egos when it came to learning; nope, they all entered school at the same age. Then the scientists assumed the girls were “subject to stronger modesty norms than men,” implying they would be hesitant to brag about their own intelligence. Alas, wrong there as “children in the age range we tested are notoriously boastful about their abilities.” So, the scientists failed to conclude why girls appeared to believe boys are smarter. Leave it to the writers at Café Mom to give into the most popular stereotype of all: It’s all the media’s fault.
Or is it?
Both the scientists at Science and the writers at Café Mom failed to note studies concluding that women are extremely competitive when it comes to dealing with other women. According to one study conducted in 2008, girls begin competing with each other at the ripe young age of four. Working with groups of male and female preschoolers, researchers removed toys from the group to see how the children would respond in terms of sharing:
… girls employed a much more indirect approach to get their hands on the prized possession – the threat of social exclusion.
The all girl groups would shun the child who held the puppet, whisper and talk behind her back and even hide from her, the findings, highlighted by New Scientist magazine, show.
Joyce Benenson, from Emmanuel College in Boston, who led the study, said that the results could explain why girls are more jealous of their friendships than boys.
She believes that the threat of being ignored and excluded by their peers is much more relevant for girls and that they have to take action to protect themselves.
Melissa Emery Thompson, from the University of New Mexico, said that the children’s “spontaneous” behaviour study helped to prove that the idea that women were naturally less competitive was a myth.
Even at an early age, she pointed out, they avoid risky direct aggression in favour of subtler forms of competition, such as small shifts in tone and expression, or spreading rumours.
In other words, perhaps 6- and 7-year-old girls don’t necessarily think boys are smarter than they are. After all, the study also revealed that girls do not correlate academic performance with brilliance (something the Café Mom notedly left out of their panicked reporting). Perhaps women are just hardwired to treat other women as competitors. What better way to be “notoriously boastful” than to presume you’re the smartest woman in the room? It’s a logical conclusion that doesn’t bode well for the Sisterhood, so we’ll just sweep it under the stereotype rug and keep blaming “the media,” right?