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By the Age of Six Girls May Be Intellectually Deferring to their Male Peers

Primary schools

A group of prominent US researchers have revealed the disheartening statement that school girls as young as only six are beginning to doubt their own academic potential. The Journal of Science, in their most recent issue, have published this finding based on a study of 400 children. The initial phase of the study focused on five year olds, and showed how both girls and boys did not differentiate between genders in terms of how they saw each other (and themselves) academically.

The category actually used was titled `really really smart` - an infantalized phrase that the children would use to award each other. At the age of five the children in the study were awarding both boys and girls equally, but by the age of six, the girls were actually putting more boys into the praiseworthy group, and selecting less of their own gender.

The study itself, conducted last year, presented the children with many differing kinds of thought experiments. One of them took the form of a story, describing a character who was `really, really smart.` The story went on to list the many clever things the character did, without ever stating their gender. Once the story was finished the children were shown a picture with four different characters, two boys and two girls, and were asked to decide which one of them they thought was the protagonist of the story.

The results of this simple test were very interesting: when conducted on five year olds, 75% of girls chose a female character, and 75% of the boys chose a male character. Equality and self confidence - perhaps we all have a lot to learn from this young age group! This equitable panacea seems to be short lived however, for when the same test is performed on six year olds the boys are largely unchanged in their choice, but more than half of the girls now chose a man as the protagonist.

Another test involved two groups of children playing a board game. The games were actually identical, but they had significantly different branding. One board game was described as `for children who are really, really smart,` while the other was described as `for children who try really, really hard.` A subtle distinction it may seem, but one that children, at this critical period of language receptivity, will discern with keen acuity.

The study showed that, while six and seven year old girls said they enjoyed the board game `for children who try really, really hard` as much as boys did, they did not enjoy the game for `really smart` children as much as their male counterparts.

The team who conducted the study - which consisted of academics from the Universities of Illinois, Princeton, and New York - stated that gender stereotypes were beginning to show from a surprisingly young age.

How would children pick up on these stereotypes? The answer must be from a myriad of sources, the most prominent of which would likely be their parents, teachers, other children, and all varieties of media.

At the age of six children are more likely to be watching cartoons than real life tv drama. Many of these cartoons adhere to fairly tale like stereotypes - there may be a damsel in distress, there may be a group set out to save her, or overcome some kind of challenge, and that group will likely be led by a male figure. This certainly might lead children to ascribe problem solving to boys.

Prof Andrei Cimpian, from the University of Illinois and one of the researchers, said that `young kids are exposed to the cultural notion that genius is more likely a male than a female quality.`

The truth is that the very notion of female creativity and genius has been problematic throughout history. Few people would know who Ellis, Curror and Acton Bell are. In 1846 the three Bront sisters felt compelled to adopt these pseudonyms, with specifically masculine first names, to elude the contemporary prejudice levelled against female writers. George Elliot took her pen name to ensure that her writings would be taken seriously, since the prevailing view was that women were only capable of writing lighthearted romances. While almost everyone knows the name of Felix Mendelssohn - few are aware of the great music his sister also composed. Most of her opus remained unplayed and certainly unpublished more than a century after her death - a female composer was somehow incongruous; and the words of her father, writing to her in 1820, express the sentiments of the times:

`Music will perhaps become his (i.e. her brother`s) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament`

Many would say that these are examples from the distant past - that we have made great strides in equality. The case of Elena Ferrante, the great contemporary Italian writer, suggests otherwise however. This Italian Novelist, who has written a series of excellent books, but choses to shun the limelight, has led many (including literary critics) to claim that she is in fact a man - since only a masculine mind could have created such works.

22 months ago
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