A recent study found that by age six, girls perceive themselves as less intelligent than boys. The study consisted of an experiment asking girls and boys if they wanted to play a game for smart kids, then telling them a fictional story about a smart person. At the end of the story, the kids had to decide if the “really, really smart” person in the story was a man or woman. The girls were less likely to identify the character as a woman than boys were to identify the character as a man. Social science research shows that stereotypes and childhood socialization shape a person’s understanding of gender norms.
The classic stereotype that boys are better at math and science still persists, even though more women are entering STEM fields. Teachers often perceive that boys are better at math than girls are, which girls and boys both internalize as early as second grade. Students, in turn, stereotype men as smarter than women, as evidenced by student evaluations of college professors. Students refer to male professors as “brilliant” more often than female and minority professors, and the “brilliant” professors are more likely to be in fields, such as math and science, with fewer female professors.
- Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries. 2012. “Exploring Bias in Math Teachers’ Perceptions of Student Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity.” Gender & Society 26(2): 290-322.
- Dario Cvencek, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Anthony G. Greenwald. 2011. “Math–Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children”. Child Development 82: 766–779
- Daniel Storage, Zachary Horne, Andrei Cimpian, Sarah-Jane Leslie. 2016. “The Frequency of “Brilliant” and “Genius” in Teaching Evaluations Predicts the Representation of Women and African Americans across Fields.” PLoS ONE 11(3)
In addition to just thinking boys are better at certain subjects, teachers also treat girls and boys differently. In preschools, teachers tend to let boys be rowdier, louder, and allow them to move around the classroom more freely. Later in school, after kids have learned what behaviors are gender-appropriate in the classroom, teachers associate boys with troublemaking and girls with good behavior, which they in turn translate into beliefs about academic achievement; they tend to view boys as underachievers and girls as high achievers, meaning that girls who struggle in school often get overlooked.
- Karin A. Martin. 1998. “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools.” American Sociological Review 63: 494-511.
- Susan Jones and Debra Myhill. 2004. “‘Troublesome Boys’ and ‘Compliant Girls’: Gender Identity and Perceptions of Achievement and Underachievement.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 5: 547-561.
Despite the stereotypes that boys and girls have different intellectual capacities, studies show that they are not really psychologically different, but at certain ages in development they may seem different. In actuality, girls and boys do not have unequal math and science abilities.
- Janet Hyde. 2005. “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” American Psychologist 60(6): 581-592.
- Janet Hyde, Elizabeth Fennema, and Susan J. Lamon. 1990. “Gender Differences in Mathematics Performance: A meta-Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 107(2): 139-155.