• Girls as young as six believe that exceptional talent is a male trait, according to research into gender stereotypes. (PA Wire/AAP)Source: PA Wire/AAP
Research shows that by age six, girls already think boys are smarter than them. As parents, it can be hard to accept that we are unwittingly contributing to sexism. So what should parents do to give girls intellectual confidence?
By
Elizabeth Sutherland

30 Jan 2017 - 1:00 PM  UPDATED 30 Jan 2017 - 1:00 PM

Findings released last week in the journal Science, showing that by the age of six American girls don’t think they’re as smart as boys, should give all parents pause.

The study found that girls were less likely than boys to show interest in a game that was labelled ‘for really smart children’, and they were also far less likely to assume that the ‘smart’ characters in a story were girls.

In other words, when they see the word ‘smart’, girls are switching off and assuming that their gender is excluded.

This is a problem because the long-term consequences can keep women out of certain careers. In academia, pursuits where “raw talent was required, academic departments had lower percentages of women”.

...when they see the word ‘smart’, girls are switching off and assuming that their gender is excluded.

There is actually no clear evidence that girls and boys aren’t equally capable when it comes to intellectual pursuits (and, in fact, neuroscientists like Cordelia Fine argue that any cognitive differences can be explained by socialisation).

However, even very young children are buying the stereotype that only boys are brilliant.

The authors of the recent Science study, Cimpian and Leslie, argue that girls are being held back not by their innate abilities but by the culture around them. In Western culture, genius is so strongly associated with masculinity that even parents are pigeon-holing their kids. In fact, parents are more than 2.5 times more likely to google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”

As parents, it can be hard to accept that we are unwittingly contributing to sexism. So what should parents do to give girls intellectual confidence? 

1. Point out the successes of girls and women, especially to your sons.

This is not all on girls; while some girls doubt their capacity to succeed at a young age, boys are already learning that the world is their oyster.

Parents should show all children that in fact, human endeavour does not have to have a gender bias and nor does the responsibility for caring work or the less glamorous jobs. Not all plumbers are male, not all surgeons are male, and not all nurses are female. Point out the female doctors, politicians, artists and scientists that you see around you.

In the home, parents can also offer a challenge to gender stereotypes by showing that any adult can tackle different types of jobs and responsibilities. Mowing the grass, changing nappies, managing the finances, painting the front fence and cleaning the toilet are not gender-specific activities!

As this excellent video created by the Opera House shows, there is no quantifying the value of strong role models. Introduce kids to female genius both fictional and real: think Roald Dahl’s Matilda, J.K Rowling’s Hermione, NASA scientist Katherine G. Johnson, and activist Malala Yousafzai. 

Mowing the grass, changing nappies, managing the finances, painting the front fence and cleaning the toilet are not gender-specific activities!

2. Mind your language.

Too often, girls are praised for their physical characteristics or their capacity to be quiet and placid. Rather than saying to your young daughter, “that’s a pretty dress!” or “you were such a good girl for sitting still!” you could say “it’s so clever how you’ve worked out that puzzle already, I can see you love to learn new things.”

Otherwise, girls might internalise the idea that they should look nice and say little - not characteristics that lend themselves to pursuing brilliant careers or striving to achieve highly.

Meanwhile, boys who hear that they are “brave” and who are expected to make mistakes because “boys will be boys” may find it easier to develop faith in their own capacity to learn.

Intellectual confidence is only one piece of the gender equality puzzle, but having girls tackle STEM subjects with gusto is certainly a good start.

3. Look to Arab nations for inspiration.

Many erroneously assume that predominantly Muslim countries such as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates would enforce gender inequality in education.

In fact, the reverse is true: in these nations, girls are more confident than boys when it comes to maths. While Australian universities are still trying to find more gender balance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses, these types of careers are very popular amongst women in the Arab world.

This suggests that the idea that only boys can be maths geniuses are entirely cultural: when girls are encouraged to work with numbers from an early age, their abilities are just as good (or better) than boys’.

In Australia, not only are only 13 per cent of engineering graduates female, but the percentage of female STEM graduates earning more than $100 000 a year is only 12 per cent (compared with 32 per cent of males). While genius is found in the arts and humanities as well, maths-related subjects are often the ones school-aged children believe require the most intelligence.

Intellectual confidence is only one piece of the gender equality puzzle, but having girls tackle STEM subjects with gusto is certainly a good start.

4. Teach your daughter to back herself.

Intellectual confidence boils down to trusting that you have what it takes. While assertive, confident boys are seen as leadership material, girls can be called ‘bossy’ for the same behaviours, even in the classroom.

This can lead girls to be passive and avoid making contributions in class, and in turn this creates low self esteem which hurts their capacity to achieve. It’s okay to talk to kids about gender bias and help them to be critical of it, as everyone has the right to learn and strive to do their best.

Your daughter will have the confidence to leap into new challenges if she knows you have her back. Tell her you know just how amazing she can be, every day.

Elizabeth Sutherland is a Melbourne writer and teacher. Follow her on Twitter at @MsElizabethEDU

Why are we keeping girls in the dark when it comes to sex education?
Comment: Parents who are nervous about talking to their young daughters about sex need to live in the real world.
What girls look like when “Strong is the new Pretty”
Kate T. Parker started her photography project “Strong is the New Pretty” a few years ago and now many people are sharing photos of their own daughters looking strong.