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Materials and Methods
Figs. S1 to S18
Tables S1 to S7
12 September 2016; accepted 16 December 2016
Gender stereotypes about intellectual
ability emerge early and influence
Lin Bian,1,2 Sarah-Jane Leslie,3 Andrei Cimpian1,2*
Common stereotypes associate high-level intellectual ability (brilliance, genius, etc.) with
men more than women. These stereotypes discourage women’s pursuit of many
prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish
brilliance (such as physics and philosophy). Here we show that these stereotypes are
endorsed by, and influence the interests of, children as young as 6. Specifically, 6-year-old
girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really
smart.” Also at age 6, girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are “really,
really smart.” These findings suggest that gendered notions of brilliance are acquired early
and have an immediate effect on children’s interests.
The career aspirations of young men and women are shaped by societal stereotypes about gender (1, 2). For example, the stereo- type that men are better than women at mathematics (3) impairs women’s performance in this domain (4, 5) and undermines their
interest in mathematics-intensive fields (6, 7).
However, popular beliefs about ability associate not only specific cognitive processes (e.g.,
mathematical reasoning) with a particular gender but also the overall amount of cognitive
ability. It is commonly assumed that high-level
cognitive ability (brilliance, genius, giftedness,
etc.) is present more often in men than in women (8–11). This “brilliance = males” stereotype
has been invoked to explain the gender gaps
in many prestigious occupations (12–15). However, little is known about the acquisition of this
stereotype. The earlier children acquire the notion that brilliance is a male quality, the stronger
its influence may be on their aspirations. The
four studies reported here (N = 400 children)
show that, by the age of 6, girls are less likely
than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart”—a child-friendly
way of referring to brilliance. Also at age 6, the
girls in these studies begin to shy away from
novel activities said to be for children who are
“really, really smart.” These studies speak to the
early acquisition of cultural ideas about brilliance
and gender, as well as to the immediate effect
that these stereotyped notions have on children’s
The stereotypes associating men but not
women with brilliance and genius (8–11) may
take a toll on women’s careers; fields whose
members place a great deal of value on sheer
brilliance (e.g., mathematics, physics, philosophy)
have lower proportions of women earning ba-
chelor’s and doctoral degrees (12–17). However,
investigations of the “brilliance = males” stereo-
type that focus exclusively on participants of col-
lege age or older overlook a critical fact: Cultural
messages about the presumed cognitive abilities
of males and females are likely to be influential
throughout development (18, 19). If children ab-
sorb and act on these ideas (3, 20, 21), then
many capable girls are likely to have already
veered away from certain fields by the time they
reach college. Thus, it is important to investi-
gate the acquisition of the “brilliance = males”
stereotype in early childhood, as children enter
school and begin to make choices that shape their
future career paths.
Study one examined the developmental trajectory of this stereotype in 96 children aged 5,
6, and 7 (32 children per age group; half boys,
half girls). Children came mostly from middle-class backgrounds, and 75% were white. (The
supplementary materials contain additional demographic information. However, across studies,
children’s race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status did not significantly moderate the results
of interest.) We assessed children’s endorsement
of the “brilliance = males” stereotype with three
tasks, presented in counterbalanced order (see
the supplementary materials). In task (i), children were told a brief story about a person who
was “really, really smart.” No hints as to the
protagonist’s gender were provided. Children
were then asked to guess which of four unfamiliar
adults (two men, two women) was the protagonist of the story. In task (ii), children saw several
pairs of same- or different-gender adults and
guessed which adult in each pair was “really,
really smart.” In task (iii), children completed
three novel puzzles in which they had to guess
which objects (e.g., a hammer) or attributes (e.g.,
smart) best corresponded to pictures of unfamiliar
men and women.
Across tasks and studies, the pictures depicted
males and females matched for attractiveness
and professional dress (potential cues to intelligence). In each task, we recorded the proportion
of relevant trials on which children linked intellectual ability with people of their own gender;
these proportions were then averaged into an
own-gender brilliance score. As a comparison,
we also elicited children’s ideas about whether
men versus women are “really, really nice.” These
two traits are differentially linked to gender in
common stereotypes (2). As the relevant cultural
notions are being assimilated, children’s responses
should likewise differentiate between these traits.
The results suggest that children’s ideas about
brilliance exhibit rapid changes over the period
from ages 5 to 7. At 5, boys and girls associated
brilliance with their own gender to a similar extent (Wald c2 = 0.02, P = 0.89) (Fig. 1A and table
S2). The high scores are consistent with the overwhelming in-group positivity previously observed
1Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Champaign,
IL 61820, USA. 2Department of Psychology, New York
University, New York, NY 10003, USA. 3Department of
Philosophy, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.
*Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com (L.B.);