Reversing the “gendered notion of brilliance”


As you may have seen, another study came out last week showing that young girls think boys are smarter than them. Media, other research shows, plays a strong role in how girls view themselves. But instead of lamenting the state of things—as so much of the “news” in social media does today—let’s talk solutions. Parents, I’m convinced that the solution to changing how girls view themselves begins and ends with you.

To understand where the stereotype that women aren’t cut for “scientific” jobs comes from, we must first look at a classic 1957 study. The study asked more than 30,000 U.S. high school students to describe what image comes to mind when they think of a scientist—the picture they most often described was that of a middle-age man in a white lab coat and glasses. The study, or iterations of it, has been corroborated many times in the ensuing years among hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries. And these stereotypes seem to begin as early as elementary school. When they are asked to draw a scientist, elementary school kids’ pictures most often portray a male scientist.

Now, I’m not necessarily concerned that young girls think most scientists are male, because that perception is actually correct. More men fill “scientific” and “technology” career-roles than women, for what I’m sure are a variety of reasons. But, what I’m most concerned about is the fact that girls don’t even consider careers in science because they don’t think they’re smart enough. Perhaps that’s where the problem lies. Decades of research shows that if you think you can do something, you’re more likely to try it out—it’s called self-efficacy—and self-efficacy is one of the strongest predictors of future behavior. If girls don’t believe they can do something, they’re less likely to even try.

So, we come back to where we started. Girls don’t think they’re as smart as boys. To change this, research suggests, then, that we need to change girls’ self-efficacy—their belief that they have the ability to accomplish something. But, I think even that wouldn’t be enough. I want my daughters to believe that they can accomplish anything.

If we were to boil down all the media effects research into one statement it might be this: whatever we fill our minds with, that’s what we become. Think about it. If children watch violence, research shows they can become aggressive. If kids watch sex on TV, they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. If girls see women on TV portrayed as meant only for fulfilling a man’s desire, what are they supposed to think? If women in the media are portrayed as less intelligent than men, of course girls will pick up on that.

So, to me it makes perfect sense that if we want girls to feel good about themselves, and to feel like they can accomplish anything, we need to fill their minds with that message. And that message needs to be louder than the message they get about girls from the media. Because that message is so rarely found in media, I believe it is up to parents to take a leading role in changing how girls think about themselves. If media tells girls that men are smarter, parents need to tell them how smart girls are 10 times as much. If media tells girls that their value lies in their appearance, we must tell them time and time again that their value is (1) intrinsic and (2) based on who they are, not on what they look like.

Let me tell you how we’re trying to do this in our family. Last weekend we took all four of our daughters to see Hidden Figures. If you haven’t seen it, please go. In short, the movie shares the story of three black women mathematicians who become some of the most important figures in the 1960s space race. Afterward, we talked with our girls about the show, and emphasized as strongly as we could that because of strong women of the past, they can become whoever and whatever they want. I look forward to the day when being a strong, brilliant woman is something so commonplace that a movie telling the story isn’t even necessary to get girls to consider that they can do anything. Our work with our daughters, of course, is not done. We’ll need to tell them this same message week after week, month after month, year after year. And your daughters need you to do the same.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on women’s issues—women’s rights, women’s gender roles, what it means to be a woman, etc. But I do know that nobody has a greater influence on children than parents. And it’s time for us to take our girls back from the media by re-enthroning parenting as the best solution for helping our daughters believe in themselves.

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