When I was in seventh grade we played a game in health class that required us to split up between boys and girls (gender nonconformity had not yet hit the minds of the administration in a school located in a suburb revoltingly named Happy Valley) and list what was awesome about our gender. Totally a good idea in the minds of the teacher and I get that. “Let’s instill confidence in these kids to love who they are, as they are.”
In reality, it was a shitshow.
It was a trainwreck, because why? The fucking patriarchy is why. It was “cool” for girls to shit on being female. The boys had a long list of what’s awesome about being boys: strong, smart, tough, funny. The girls: well… girls are so whiny though, you know? And girls just don’t get as much done. Girls aren’t funny. Girls aren’t as smart.
It was not individual girls bemoaning their own inferiority as the shittier sex. Rather it was girls as a group saying “most girls are silly and I’M TOTALLY DIFFERENT; I’M A COOL GIRL.
We learned this early. Like really early. According to a recent study, we learn it by fucking kindergarten.
In the study, researchers analyzed the answers and behaviors of children ages five, six, and seven. They found that at age five, children did not expect “brilliance” more from boys than girls. By age six, however, “girls were prepared to lump more boys into the ‘really, really smart’ category and to steer themselves away from games intended for the ‘really, really smart.’”
Criticisms of STEM fields for lack of gender diversity are often met with “well women just aren’t interested in this stuff.” And that might be true but this study points to a key reason: women often aren’t as interested because they learn at a young age to not be interested in “smart people interests.” I.e., boy interests.
According to the study, “investigations of the ‘brilliance = males’ stereotype that focus exclusively on participants of college 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.”
“Thus,” write the researchers, “it is important to investigate 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.”
It’s critical to examine how childhood play affects career development later in life. Girls learn to not be interested in “smart activities” because girls aren’t smart. What results is a self-defeating cycle reinforcing the intellectual inferiority of girls and leaning on the excuse of it “simply” being a matter of interest.
The study was small and not terribly diverse. The upcoming longitudinal study will correct that, but regardless, “the present results suggest a sobering conclusion: Many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age. This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate.”
This study is admittedly quite small. But it remains an important starting point for an under-addressed question: when, why, and how do children learn that boys are smarter? The researchers are currently developing a longitudinal study that will track children of the same ages – five to seven – and measure several key factors in their environments to determine where children learn these stereotypes: parents beliefs, teachers education methods, and both type and amount of media exposure.
“That will allow us to say which one of these environmental sources is most closely predicted with the emergence of these beliefs in children,” says Andrei Cimpian, associate professor of cognitive and developmental psychology at New York University. “I don’t imagine that the answer is going to be a simple one.”
It’s certainly not going to be. Analysis of gender stereotypes is incredibly complex and riddled with centuries of social fuckery. If the recent infantilizing of Senator Elizabeth Mother Fucking Warren taught us anything, it’s that we really, really, really don’t want women to be intelligent. Displays of confidence, of wit, of clever language and shrewd insight, are met with confusion, anger, and condescension.
The problem with my seventh grade health class was not simply boys saying “girls aren’t as smart as us.” It was girls as well, and possibly even more. We learned that boys are smarter and better and that the more we align ourselves with “masculine” qualities, the better.