By Hansa Bhargava
WebMD Medical Editor
As a pediatrician, I enjoy talking with my patients about school. Recently, I saw a 9-year-old girl and asked about her favorite subject. She smiled and told me art, and then proceeded to say she didn’t like math. When asked why, she responded that she wasn’t very good at it.
Girls of all ages have internal biases about their abilities and can have low self-esteem more frequently than boys their own age. Now, recently published research seems to suggest girls think boys are smarter than they are, starting at about age 6.
In a study published in Journal of Science, researchers assigned various tasks to a group of 5-7 year old children. In one task, they told the children a story about a “really, really smart person” (a child-level description of brilliant). When asked whether it was the picture of a professionally dressed man or woman, girls 6 and above were more likely to point to the picture of a man. In a related task, girls were more likely to shy away from games that were supposedly for “children who are really really smart.” Younger girls, below age 6, did not seem to have these biases, researchers said.
I reached out to two experts to get their thoughts on these findings.
Heather Pressley, VP of Programming for Girls on The Run (GOTR), oversees program development for the organization, a physical activity-based positive youth development program for girls in grades 3-8. She’s also a former teacher and has a PhD in urban education.
Pressley felt the findings of this study were not surprising. “It may be because at age 6, most girls enter school and have the influence of others that may be subconsciously biased. Schools, teachers, parents and other students may unintentionally propagate these feelings in girls.”
Pressley suggested that teachers and administrators recognize their own possible subconscious bias and give both genders the same exposure to different subjects. This would promote the same confidence and competence in all areas. Additionally, they should put girls in extracurricular programs which have a “mastery climate” and a “growth mindset” – showing that talents and strengths can be developed, as opposed to believing you’re good at something or you aren’t — to help them consider subjects such as science or mathematics, she says.
Kristin Carruthers, a clinical psychologist who practices at Child Mind Institute and specializes in ADHD and behavorial disorders, felt similarly.
Carruthers said we could potentially change this by praising girls regularly about their “smartness.” Talk about their accomplishments – like helping calculate the cost of an item in a store or doing well on a math test — to help increase self-esteem and confidence. Long-term, low self-esteem could influence college choices and careers. Because they think they are not smart, some girls are less likely to take on what they perceive as challenges.
Women are inclined to pick majors that are not in science, math or technology, traditionally viewed as “challenging” subjects. In the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, less than 30% of women graduated with degrees in science and engineering in 2014, and interestingly this has changed by just 1% over the last decade.
Low self-esteem also can be a risk factor for other issues such as anxiety, depression, weight gain, and eating disorders, and it can affect other facets of life and can play out as difficulty in relationships.
Here are some actions I recommend for parents:
1. Let your daughter know, at every opportunity, that she can do whatever she wants as long as she puts her mind to it.
2. Treat your sons and daughters the same way. If you ask your daughter to help with the dishes, ask your son just as often.
3. Be vigilant about media in the home, on the internet and on tablets and phones. If you see a commercial or a video portraying a woman in a stereotypical role, talk to your kids about it. Use it as a teaching moment.
4. If you see a good role model who is a woman, point her out and talk about it with your children. This could be a tennis star or a CEO of a company, or just the high school kid next door who is an A+ student.
Most important, be a good role model yourself. Kids are more likely to do what we do, not what we preach. If a girl sees her mother being critical of herself, especially of how she looks or how intelligent she is, she’s encouraged to do the same.
Remember, moms need to celebrate themselves and their accomplishments. If we do that, it will help teach our daughters to do that too, and hopefully to take on challenges because they think they are worthy of them.