Why do girls as young as six believe boys are smarter?

Walk into a toyshop today — I dare you. You’ll find yourself plunged into an archaic, alternate universe, where gender segregation is enforced with frightening efficiency and simplicity. It’s done through shading: prim pink play kitchens, princess costumes and plastic dollies to the left; brash blue building blocks, trucks and weapons to the right.

Over the past year, there has been a lot of righteous uproar about this “pinkification” of little girls’ lives. Last year, the White House held a conference to explore ways of breaking down gender stereotypes in media and toys. Meanwhile, the UK’s Institute for Engineering and Technology warned that gendered toys were discouraging girls from pursuing careers in those fields.

Thirty-one per cent of engineering and tech toys were marketed explicitly at boys, the institute found, compared with just 11 per cent at girls. What, though, if toys aren’t the only problem? What if it’s . . . us?


In January, the academic journal Science published research from the US investigating the age at which girls begin to think that they are less intellectually brilliant than boys. It’s a pretty subtle process, so the team — led by psychologist Lin Bian — looked at 400 children from a variety of backgrounds and conducted several different tests.

Here’s what they concluded: it happens at the age of six. Before they have lost the first of their milk teeth, little girls have lost confidence in their gender’s intellectual ability.

The US study told two stories to children between the ages of five and seven. One, they explained, was about a “really, really smart” person; the other, a “really, really nice” one. Afterwards, the children were asked which story was about a girl, and which about a boy.

At five, the boys were sure the “really, really smart” character was a boy, and the girls were certain it must be a girl.

By six, however, the girls had changed their minds. Over 12 months, they…

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