As the mom of two daughters, I did a double-take when I saw a recent story in the The Atlantic that claimed that by the age of 6, girls and boys already have set ideas about who's smart and who's not — and the girls aren't winning the race.

At 6 years old — an age when girls tend to outperform boys at school — girls already begin to think of themselves, other girls and women as "not smart," while equating boys and men with brilliance, according to a new study that looked at the gender biases by kids about intelligence.

For the study, which was published in a recent issue of Science, researchers asked boys and girls various questions about intelligence. At the age of 5, boys thought boys were smart and girls associated brainpower with their own gender, too. By age 6, the boys held on to the belief that boys were smart but the girls were less likely to equate intelligence with themselves or even with other girls or adult women.

Furthermore, when the kids were asked if they wanted to play a game for kids who are "really, really smart" or a different one for kids who "try really, really hard," the 5-year-olds were equally likely to play either game; by age 6, the girls were less likely to choose the game for smart kids.

"They’d go from being really enthusiastic to saying: ‘Oh I don’t want to play it, this isn’t a game for me,’" said Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, and a lead author of the study.

The path of lost opportunities

The implications of this kind of gender bias are troubling, because if girls don't think they're smart, they're less likely to choose the games, courses, and field work that might challenge them. Over time, this attitude could result in an accumulation of lost opportunities that lay the foundation for girls to turn away from careers they deem out of reach. Beyond that, girls may feel the need to defer to their male peers at work, school, or home on any issue that they assume requires intelligence.

I was so disturbed by these findings that I decided to conduct an informal study with my own daughters, ages 14 and 10. Both girls are home schooled and are working on curricula that are a year ahead of where they would be if they were in public school. When they were in public school, they were both in the district's gifted and talented program for accelerated students.

I began by asking both girls if they would categorize themselves as smart, really smart or not smart, and here's what they said:

10-year-old: Smart

14-year-old: Not smart

Seriously? My teen recently completed the standardized testing and she scored at the 98th percentile overall. I'm not trying to brag here; I'm just trying to explain how shocking her answer was to me. When I asked her why she didn't think she was smart, she replied that she thinks her school subjects are hard and she's not as good at them as she used to be. (Side note: She started high school this year and is taking honors algebra, environmental science, and a combined U.S. history/classic literature course among other subjects. So yes, it's harder than any curriculum she has followed to date, but it hardly reflects the coursework of a kid who is "not smart.")

Next I asked my girls about the game question from Bain's study. Would they rather play a game for "really, really smart kids," or for kids who "try really, really hard?" Both girls told me that they didn't think they would do well in a game for really, really smart kids, so they would probably choose the other.


Finally, I asked them if they could name one person — famous or not — who they thought was smart.

Both girls choose their mom and immediately earned a double allowance for the month. (Ha!) When I pressed them for someone else, my teen chose Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking while my 10-year-old kept it close to home by choosing Daddy. Their initial choice was a woman, so hooray for that! But even after a few minutes of thought, neither girl could come up with another woman -— famous or not — who they thought was smart. I feel the need to point out here that both girls have read books and done extensive research on some seriously smart women such as Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, Michelle Obama and so many more.

We need to work on this

As I don't have any sons, I can't make any boy/girl comparisons about how kids feel about intelligence in my own home. But the information that I gleaned from my girls was bothersome enough. Here are two smart kids who would turn down the opportunity to work on a game that they felt might be too challenging for them and could not immediately call to mind a smart person of their own gender (other than their mom.)

So yes, I'd say this is an issue that deserves wider attention as well as some serious thought by teachers, school administrators and parents on how we can change this misconception that girls have about intelligence. I know I'll be making some changes in my own home, starting with a refresher on all of the women throughout history who've made contributions in academia and our community to make the world a better, smarter place.

By 6 years old, many girls begin to believe they're not smart
Gender stereotypes about intelligence may take hold much earlier than we thought.