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When Will Smart Girls Believe They're Smart?

Intelligence is a gendered state of mind.

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A heartbreaking study recently published in Science suggests that by the age of six, girls already believe they are less intelligent than boys. In the series of experiments, researchers tested children (5 to 7 years old) to see if they believed gender played a role in brilliance. In one test, they were told a story about a "really, really smart" protagonist and were asked to guess whether the character was a man or woman.

All the boys as well as the 5-year old girls guessed their own gender. The 6- and 7-year old girls did not. They believed the very smart character was male. In a later test, these older girls, were also more reluctant than boys to play games which were described as for "really, really smart children."

These results are consistent with a 2011 study which demonstrates that, as early as second grade, boys feel more confident about math than girls do, despite the fact that both genders perform equally well in the so-called "brainy" subject.

Though research and common sense tell us that boys are not smarter than girls, these outdated and inaccurate gender stereotypes pervade into adulthood.

Just look at these current findings:

  • Even as adults, both women and men think that women are worse at math.
  • Women make up half the national workforce but are significantly underrepresented in STEM careers. For example, just 12 percent of civil engineers are women.
  • Women are better educated than men, but make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men—in virtually every profession.


To call the last year difficult for women is a gross understatement. The last few days, in particular, have been especially challenging, with the new president reinstating a "global gag rule" which cuts funding to global healthcare NGOs that provide either information or access to abortion services. In a mind-boggling photo op, Trump signed this executive order, which effectively limits the rights and healthcare of women all over the world, flanked by a group of men. The message is clear: Men, who have never been women, believe they are wiser than women in knowing what is best for them and their bodies.

Don't worry, this isn't meant to be a partisan political think piece. This is Psychology Today, after all. What I'm merely suggesting is that the president's order is, perhaps, one alarming repercussion of what happens when boys and girls are told (and subsequently believe) girls are less intelligent.

A few months ago, I wrote about the rise of female misogynists in the wake of the Trump campaign. Women, who either by conscious choice or subconscious internalization, championed a candidate who bragged about sexual assault and dismissed it as "locker room talk." Here's how one of them responded. (The arrow, by the way, points exactly where you think it points.)

Source: Twitter

Do you know this woman? I don't know her, but if you do, please tell her I'd love to ask her a few questions:

When you were six years old, were you told that you weren't smart enough or as intelligent as the boys? Were you told your opinions, choices and thoughts didn't matter because you were just a girl? Were you never encouraged in school because you thought you were probably going to fail anyway? Were you told that everyone else knew better than you? That you were too stupid to make your own decisions? That all you were good for was your body, which existed solely for the pleasure for others?...and a million more questions like this, because how else do you explain wearing this shirt?


What is so ironic about this damaging gender bias is that much of the latest research shows that, if anything, women are more intelligent than men. According to IQ expert James Flynn, women in many developed nations (including the U.S.) now outscore men on all intelligence tests. Women also boast a higher EQ or emotional intelligence than men, meaning they have more self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management skills. And another study found that companies led by women CEOs performed 3x better than those led by men.

Women even make better computer programmers, according to this study, which revealed that while female coders produce better code, it was more likely to be rejected if their gender was revealed.

But confidence also plays a crucial role in intelligence. We know men have more confidence than women, too much of it even. Studies show that men often overestimate both their abilities and performance, while women tend to undercut them, even though they both get the same results. Men are also less inclined than women to give up or hold themselves back because of self-doubt. And, when something goes wrong, women are more likely to blame themselves for what happened, whereas men blame outside circumstances.

Why shouldn't they feel this way? We already know men are great—this fact is instilled in both genders every day. The majority of the world's most recognized thinkers, leaders business figures and scientists are usually men. Of the 881 Nobel Prize winners since 1901, 833 have been men. In 2016, there were no woman laureates. And there weren't any in 2012, 2010, 2006 and 2005.


For most of us, just having faith things will turn out is not enough. We must see the proof for ourselves. When Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination (and subsequently won the popular vote), it was the first time I ever believed that society had evolved its views on women, especially smart women.

At the end though, it proved to be a short-lived illusion. The country still elected someone who, in both actions and statements, has undercut the intelligence and value of women—someone who has vehemently pledged to strip women of our right to healthcare and ownership of our bodies. And there are many women (e.g., 53% white women) who not only condoned these beliefs, but actively supported it with their vote.

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Thankfully, many programs have cropped up in the cultural landscape to correct this faulty thinking. Groups like Black Girls Code educate and empower girls 7 to 17 to learn computer coding and bridge the STEM gender gap. Similarly, Girls Who Code, started out as an experiment to teach 20 girls in New York how to code. Today, they have worked with more than 10,000 girls in 42 states. As more girls learn to code, it stops being something only for boys.

In 2008, actress and comedian Amy Poehler launched Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, an organization and eponymous website which "emphasizes intelligence and imagination over fitting in." The articles are written by women and often feature stories about extraordinary girls and women in STEM professions, like Maanasa Mendu, a 14-year old, who was just named America's Top Young Scientist in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Most importantly, these initiatives are also devoted to building confidence in girls, which is just as important, if not more important, than intelligence when it comes to success. Perhaps, the most obvious confidence booster here is that all of these organizations were founded and run by women. Smart, confident women who knew they were smart enough to do it themselves.

Which is what six-year-old girls need to believe, too.

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