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Promising ways to fight the ‘brilliance = men’ stereotype

Q+A with New York University psychology professor, Andrei Cimpian

“By the age of 6, young girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant.”

This troubling finding is the opening line in a New York Times piece published in early 2017 that described an in-depth study reflecting the attitudes found in a group of 400 children from a middle-class community in Illinois. The article, written by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Andrei Cimpian, was a jarring realization for parents and educators alike.

The study showed that girls’ confidence in themselves and their intellectual abilities drops in early childhood, leading to stubborn stereotypes that may, later in life, discourage girls from pursuing interests in fields like physics, science and engineering – careers that our society portrays as being only for people that are brilliant.

The critical point is when girls stop dreaming they can do anything. This is when the dream gap emerges.

We recently caught up with Cimpian, an associate professor at New York University, to ask him more about his ongoing research on the topic, and how he imagines that trend can be reversed.

Q: Your research on gender stereotypes among children, published in the journal Science, triggered a sort of global wake-up call. Were you surprised by the response to your work?

A: Yes, of course. I mean, we expected that people would find our results interesting, but the actual response was orders of magnitude beyond what we expected. The intensity of the reaction was also surprising because we were not the first to document the early emergence of troubling gender stereotypes – other researchers, for example, had found similarly early associations between boys and mathematics.

It is impossible to know why our research captured the public’s imagination as it did, but one possible reason has to do with the context in which it was published: The preceding wave of political events in the United States and elsewhere had perhaps highlighted that the status of women in society is still not equal with that of men. Many people had probably hoped it would be by this point – after decades of female empowerment rhetoric – and perhaps the realization that sexist beliefs have not only persisted but are infiltrating even the minds of children was a stark reminder of the obstacles that girls and women are still facing.

Q: What are effective ways that teachers and parents can push back against the gender stereotypes you’ve identified in your research?

A: This is an exciting direction for future work. So far, we have been doing the basic work needed to determine whether this “brilliance = men” stereotype is restricted to children in the sample we tested in our initial studies or if it applies more generally.

However, prior work in developmental psychology has suggested several potential solutions. Here are two, which are also described in a recent paper that I wrote with my graduate student Jilana Boston and that illustrates several promising ways parents and teachers can potentially fight the “brilliance = men” stereotype.

One possibility is to foster what is known as a growth mindset, which is the belief that one’s abilities in a domain (such as science) can be improved with consistent effort, effective strategies and guidance from teachers and mentors.

Students who adopt a growth mindset view success as emerging from these specific processes rather than as depending on the fixed, inherent ability one was supposedly born with (which is what so-called fixed mindsets portray as most important).

In addition, because anyone can engage in these processes, growth mindsets offer a concrete path toward improvement and success for students regardless of gender or race. Note that, when talking with children about growth mindsets, it is important to clarify that effort and strategies are not intended to somehow compensate for lack of ability; if girls infer that they have to work harder than boys to succeed, their confidence will likely suffer.

The key is to convey that effort and strategies build ability, and that this is true for everyone (which helps to normalize effort and block the inference that effort is a sign of low ability).

Another possibility is to expose girls to role models – examples of women who have achieved success in STEM (or whatever career they are hoping to pursue). Seeing other members of their gender pursue successful careers in this domain may bolster girls’ confidence in their own abilities.

Girls may be more motivated to become like their role models if they can easily envision following a similar trajectory to success.

– Andrei Cimpian

Here as well, however, it is important to be mindful of the potential pitfalls. Not every role model is inspiring, and some can even be demotivating. The more similar the role models are to the girls (in terms of, for example, background and life history), the more likely the girls are to identify with these women, and thus the more attainable their success will seem. Girls may be more motivated to become like their role models if they can easily envision following a similar trajectory to success.

However, if the role model is too different or if her success feels beyond what many people can reasonably achieve (consider, for example, Marie Curie’s two Nobel prizes), the net effect might be to make a career in science feel even less plausible than before.

Q: In light of your research, do you think that play can have a positive effect on girls and the development of a healthy self-image – and parity with boys? If so, how?

A: Yes, among other things play is a wonderful context in which to implement some of the strategies I discussed above. For example, playful science-related activities that give children opportunities to acquire important math knowledge and grow their scientific reasoning skills could be an important part of the solution to the gender gaps in science and technology fields. And, of course, play is also a context in which parents and teachers could introduce role models for girls to think about and identify with (e.g., via story books, videos, dolls).

Q: What comes next in your exploration around the dream gap? What aspects of this phenomenon still merit further exploration, and why?

A: As I mentioned above, we look forward to testing which of the possible means suggested by prior research (e.g., growth mindsets, role models) is most effective in buffering children against the “brilliance = men” stereotype.

We are also exploring which aspects of children’s environments seem to predict the emergence of these stereotypes. The answer won’t be a simple one, I’m sure, but it is still important to explore the extent to which parents, teachers, peers, toys and the broader media environment contribute to the emergence of these gendered beliefs about intellectual ability.

If we know the sources of a phenomenon, we are better equipped to fight it.

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