A brilliant woman friend of the family tweeted this article by Ed Yong, in The Atlantic, yesterday. The article describes one of the finds of an experiment by researcher Lin Bian in which she showed kids pictures of men and women and asked them to pick the one who was very smart or, in a variation, very nice:
The results were stark. Among the 5-year-olds, both boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender. But among those aged 6 or 7, only the boys still held to that view. At an age when girls tend to outperform boys at school, and when children in general show large positive biases towards their own in-groups, the girls became less likely than boys to attribute brilliance to their own gender. You could frame that as a good thing: While boys continued to believe in their own brilliance, the girls, on average, developed a more equal view. But that view has consequences—Bian also found that the older girls were less interested in games that were meant for “really, really smart” children.
Let me admit that this is sufficiently outside of my area of occupation that I haven’t gone farther than to review the easily available numbers. With this brief post, I’m only digging a little bit more deeply than Yong did for the Atlantic, so it’s certainly possible an interested reader who reviews the research more carefully may find something that would stand as a strong response to what follows.
With these disclaimers, I’d suggest that Yong should have been a bit more circumspect, or at least given some context. If I’m reading the spreadsheet correctly, both boys and girls picked a character of their own sex as the smart one around 72% of the time in grade 5. This percentage went down for girls in subsequent grades, but they still identified the female character as the brilliant one more than half the time.
And here’s an interesting observation: The real drag on the girls’ percentage was, specifically, white girls. In sixth and seventh grades, white girls actually became more likely to pick the male character as the smart one, picking the female 49% of the time, while non-white girls still picked the female character 60%.
That could suggest that the problem isn’t what might be called classic sexism, but a consequence of political correctness. Maybe, for some reason, young girls are more susceptible to its insinuations about them. Consistent with this hypothesis, the trend is clearly downward when the data for white girls is sorted by the education and income levels of their parents, which seems likely to correlate with children’s exposure to a politically correct view of the world. (Note that wealthier and more-educated families are to the right of the chart, following an index that Bian applied.)
Although the Atlantic doesn’t consider it worthy of mention, girls aren’t the only ones who seem to think less positively of their sex as they move from fifth grade to sixth and seventh. Boys take an even darker view of male “niceness” than girls take of female intelligence, and among white boys, association of both intelligence and niceness decreases with parental education and income.
Here’s the twist: Girls’ sense that females are nicer increases with age and with parental education and income.
This is a lot of generalization to draw from a little bit of data, but it appears that the more white children are acculturated into the worldview of the affluent and higher educated, the less boys think of men overall, especially with respect to how nice they are, and the less girls think of females’ intelligence, but the more girls believe in female goodness.
If these trends hold more broadly, then the suggestion of one reviewer whom Yong cites — and he only quotes women — is completely wrong: “We have to be more deliberate about presenting examples of brilliant women to girls and boys as young as five to help them avoid developing this association.” The article already notes that older girls will guess that female students do better in school, so overemphasizing brilliant women might contribute to both female arrogance and male self-loathing.
Indeed, many of us dumb men — and not a few women — think this is already a problem.