Girls will be girls? Gender stereotyping among six-year olds sparks debate

A study revealing that girls are more likely to link brilliance with boys than with their own gender made headlines on the web.

5 January 2018

Gemma Conroy

MoMo Productions/Getty

Among hot-button issues, there were few buttons hotter than gender in 2017. So when Science released a paper revealing that gender stereotypes emerge in children as young as six years old, social media lit up. The findings set off a wave of debate about the effects of gender bias on career choices and how to combat stereotypes from an early age.

Lin Bian of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues interviewed children between five and seven years old. The researchers told the children a story about a person who was “really, really smart” and asked the children to guess the character’s gender.

At five years old, girls guessed the character to be female. But at ages six and seven, girls guessed the character to be male, indicating that they were less likely to link brilliance with their own gender than boys were.

The research paper is the second most-talked about online this year among articles tracked by the Nature Index, with an Altmetric score of 4,423. In Altmetric’s Top 100 Articles 2017 list, it was fifth.

More than 400 news articles from 342 outlets mentioned the research, from The Conversation to BBC News. The paper was shared in almost 2,000 tweets and around 100 Facebook posts.

“It’s 2017, and girls still don’t think they are as smart as boys, research shows”, The Washington Post headlined. Time followed up with “How to keep your children from learning stereotypes”.

Forbes contributors Paolo Gaudiano and Ellen Hunt saw the findings a little differently to most.

“The results are being widely interpreted as showing that girls are less confident about their intelligence from a young age, when in fact a careful reading of the article reveals exactly the opposite: from as early as six years of age, girls are much more aware of their true strengths and potential,” the authors wrote.

This article is one in a series about the papers in journals tracked by the Nature Index that gained the most online attention in the past year. Altmetric is part of Digital Science, a consultancy in London operated by Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which also has a share in the publisher of the Nature Index.

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