College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

Susanna A. Jones

Some of you may have seen coverage in either The New York Times or The Atlantic last month of a new study about gender stereotypes associated with "brilliance." The short version: researchers found that between the ages of five and six girls often develop a belief that females aren't brilliant (or "really, really smart" in the parlance of a kindergartner or first grader); that descriptor belongs to males. This finding offers another example of how young children absorb stereotypes, stereotypes that can have significant implications for their futures.

Researchers in this study conducted a series of exercises with children, equally divided between boys and girls, ages 5-7. First, they described someone who is "really, really smart" and then showed the children pictures of equally professional-looking men and women. The five-year-old girls and boys identified members of their own gender as the really, really smart people in equal numbers. However, the six- and seven-year-old girls were more inclined to choose male pictures as depicting really, really smart people than images of females. In a similar exercise, children were asked to identify who among pictures of men and women were "really, really smart" with same results. Interestingly, the researchers also asked children to denote who had the highest grades among pictures of boys and girls. Here, girls tended to choose girls regardless of how old they were; in fact, the older girls chose girls more often than boys did. Girls generally have higher grades than boys so their presumptions were accurate, but bore no relationship to who they perceived as brilliant.

As I suggested, such beliefs have implications, implications that begin to emerge even at this young age. The researchers gave the children games some of which they described as meant for children who are "really, really smart" and others for those who "try really, really hard." The five-year-olds tried the games for the smart kids in about equal numbers by gender. However, by six, the girls began to shy away from the smart-kid games in higher proportions than boys, focusing instead on the games that valued trying hard. By six years old, the girls already doubted their innate ability. They had internalized the stereotype that "high-level cognitive ability (brilliance, genius, giftedness, etc.) is present more often in men than in women," to quote the researchers.

I respond to studies like this by wanting to fix the problem, to find ways to give girls more confidence in their abilities. I deeply believe that girls schools help do just that. I see it day after day and I hear it and read it from the girls themselves, girls like the many seniors who identified female empowerment as one of the school's values; who made observations such as we are "strong women – not like other girls who are easily submissive; [Holton] helped us to be that way, to realize we are equal to guys, [and] shouldn't be allowed to be taken advantage of; [we're] not afraid to talk and have opinions."

I believe that the right environment can overcome girls' underestimation of their intelligence. As a biology professor quoted in The Atlantic article suggested, we need to show children, both boys and girls, more examples of brilliant women. As I've already noted in an earlier column, part of what makes the movie Hidden Figures so wonderful is the way it portrays "really, really smart" African-American women. Girls schools make a special effort to feature women throughout the curriculum. For example, our fifth graders research female explorers and trail blazers in social studies and female scientists in science, as well as make a banner about a female leader or pioneer in art.

Moreover, the simple fact that girls and women hold all student leadership roles in the school and many of the adult leadership roles means that our students see females as leaders every day. Likewise, some traditionally male-dominated activities like the Robotics Club and the Chemathon Team have only female members so no one questions whether girls might be interested in building robots or spending a day at the University of Maryland solving chemistry problems. Not only might they be interested, but they can perform at exceptionally high levels. Our two Chemathon Teams annually finish among the top four schools in the area; last year the level-two team took first out of 21 teams that included science powerhouses Thomas Jefferson and Montgomery Blair High Schools.

Research also supports the positive impact of single sex education on girls. For example, a 2009 study conducted by UCLA professor Linda Sax found a statistically significant higher percentage of graduates of girls schools who think they are smart as compared with graduates of coed independent schools (though, to be honest, going to an independent school of any kind seems to be good for girls' academic self-esteem):

  • 81 percent of women graduates of independent single-sex schools rate themselves "above average" or in the "highest 10 percent" for academic ability, compared to 75 percent of women graduates of independent coeducational schools.
  • Nearly 60 percent of women graduates of independent single-sex schools rate themselves "above average" or in the "highest 10 percent" with regard to intellectual self-confidence, compared to 54 percent of their independent coeducational school counterparts.

While we might think it's important in the abstract for girls to believe they can be brilliant to the same degree as boys, research shows that confidence in one's intelligence can also have an impact on career choice. Some of the authors of the recent study previously proved the hypothesis that "across the academic spectrum, women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent." In this research, they tested four attributes that might affect women's participation in a particular academic field: the hours the discipline required (more hours, fewer women); high levels of selectivity (the more selective a discipline in admitting Ph.D. students, the fewer the women); the degree to which the discipline emphasizes "systematizing" versus "empathizing" (the more the field emphasizes systematizing, the fewer the women); and finally, what they call "field-specific ability beliefs" which translates as those fields that depend for success on raw ability, some innate aptitude for the subject that can't be learned (the greater the field-specific ability belief, the fewer the women). They tested these attributes by asking professors, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students in 30 disciplines at highly regarded universities across the country. They found that the highest correlation exists between the field-specific ability beliefs and the percentage of women receiving doctorates in a field. Indeed, none of the other three factors affected female representation in a discipline. Interestingly enough, they looked not just at the STEM fields but also the social sciences and humanities, some of which also have relatively low numbers of women. Economists, physicists, computer scientists, composers, and philosophers all tend to believe that success in their fields requires natural talent; all these disciplines have low percentages of women earning Ph.D.'s. We can see how a six-year-old girl who doesn't see herself as having the potential for brilliance and who opts not to play the game for "really, really smart" children will steer herself away beginning at a young age from courses where success seems to depend on being "really, really smart." Those girls won't even consider majoring in or applying to graduate school in fields that require that kind of innate intelligence. What great philosopher, composer or physicist never materializes because a little girl internalizes a stereotype about women's potential for brilliance?

The Atlantic article raises an important caveat associated with this research. A great deal of research has shown that, much more than innate talent, perseverance and hard work determine success. As The Atlantic article notes, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's work has demonstrated the importance of a growth mindset, the idea that our brains are malleable and grow and strengthen with practice, versus a fixed mindset wherein we believe that we're born with whatever ability we have. People with growth mindsets do better in school and in life. Very bright people often have fixed mindsets. Things come easily to them until they don't at which point, based on the false assumption that they should be able to do everything effortlessly, they often give up. From this perspective, we want to encourage the girls who choose the game geared towards those who "try really, really hard." As Dweck advises, we want to reward them for their effort not for being smart. However, until such time as we can convince the physicists and philosophers that success in their fields does not rely on brilliance, we need to make our girls believe that they are smart so all avenues are open to them. In short, we need girls with growth mindsets who believe they can achieve brilliance or who consciously ignore the stereotypes in the knowledge that hard work wins out. Places like Holton produce just such girls.

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