Of course girls can be smart! But they can't be "really, really smart"--the way boys can be--right?

It probably bothers you to read that, and it should. For one thing, it's obviously not true. Unfortunately, it's also what new research suggests most American girls learn to believe----starting as young as just six years old.

  • At age 5, both boys and girls believe that grown men and women are equally likely to be "really, really smart." So far, so good.
  • However, after just a year or two more of school, girls overwhelmingly grow to believe that men are much more likely than women are to be "really, really smart."
  • As they go through school, this incorrect belief leads girls to pursue less ambitious career goals than boys, and to shy away from taking courses and pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • While the causes of this incorrect belief aren't certain, the best practical remedy is pretty clear: praising kids for their efforts and problem solving, rather than for their innate intelligence.

Not all girls wind up believing this, of course, but the research suggests that a statistically significant majority wind up feeling this way.

Regular readers might know I've tackled these kinds of challenges in raising successful kids numerous times over the last year or so, and compiled a lot of what I've found in my free ebook, How to Raise Successful Kids. However, this is one of the most troubling findings I've come across. Here's the research in greater detail, along with some potential solutions.

"Really, really smart"

First, the study. Researchers from three major United States universities (see below) did a series of experiments with hundreds of Illinois elementary school children. Their work was first reported last week in the journal, Science.

Two of the experiments were pretty similar: Researchers showed the children pictures of various men and women, told them that one of the people in the photos was "really, really smart," and asked the kids to try to identify him or her from the pictures.

Later, they told the boys and girls that they could choose to play one of two games. One game was for "really, really smart" children, and the other game was for "people who work really hard." Then, they took note of which game the boys or girls chose to play.

The results, as we've seen, were disappointing. Five-year-old boys and girls in the study were as likely to choose the men or the women in the "who's really, really smart" photo test. And they were also equally eager to play the "really smart" game as the other one..

But by first grade or second grade, both boys and girls assumed that the men in the photos were the "really, really smart" ones, not the women. And the girls overwhelmingly started to turn down trying the game for "really, really smart" kids, and instead try the other one.

Deducing the causes--and effects

You might be reading this and saying to yourself, well, duh. We live in a patriarchal society, and maybe it's not surprising that girls acquire these perceptions. As one of the study's authors, associate professor Andrei Cimpian of New York University, put it:

"We associate a high level of intellectual ability with males more than females, [although] these stereotypes float free of any objective markers of achievement and intelligence."

Actually, it's not just that there aren't any markers suggesting boys are smarter than girls; in fact, the evidence goes the other way. Girls get better grades in school on average than boys, have higher rates of high school graduation, and they pursue and complete college education at higher rates than men. So why the misperception?

One obvious suggestion is that vast majority of "really, really smart" role models that we discuss in school--even in early grades--are mostly men: Einstein, and "bearded, ancient Greeks," as Nick Anderson of The Washington Post put it. Moreover, some studies show that parents assume their sons will be smarter than their daughters, and that female teachers often treat boys as if they're smarter than girls.

Regardless, there are far-reaching effects.

In a separate study, researchers found that a major reason why women are so underrepresented in the STEM fields compared to men is that so many grow up simply believing that the courses will be too hard for them. Now, it seems these stereotypes begin much earlier in life than most of us might have imagined.

Give them a growth mindset

One of the remedies here seems clear--to find ways to share more "really, really smart" female role models. But another option might short-circuit the entire discussion.

That might be the best idea, especially in the short run. For, it's actually not clear that girls should be more confident in their gender's propensity for high intelligence; maybe their skepticism is healthy, and it's the boys who have an overconfidence problem.

However, perhaps both boys and girls, we should emphasize the role that "hard work and effort" play a much greater in achieving success, as opposed to simply lauding their innate gifts, according to Lin Bian of the University of Illinois, who was also a coauthor of the study.

It's in keeping with the research of Carol Dweck of Stanford University, who argues that you should praise your children for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems--and never for their God-given intelligence or talents--starting from the youngest ages. (You can read about Dweck's research and conclusions here.)

What do you think? Should we work harder to ensure that girls are exposed to more female role models early in life, or is there another solution? Let us know in the comments below.