Andrei Cimpian on ‘The Developmental Roots of the Gender Gaps in Science and Engineering: Children’s Stereotypes About Intellectual Ability’
By Karla Kane, journalist and former Bing parent
What type of person do you picture when asked to imagine a successful scientist or mathematician? Who comes to mind when you think of someone described as a “genius” or as “brilliant”?
According to research by Andrei Cimpian, PhD, of New York University, children as early as age 6 are aware of and impacted by stereotypes about who’s considered brilliant and what endeavors require brilliance for success.
Cimpian, who earned his doctorate at Stanford in 2008, gave the Bing Nursery School 2021 Distinguished Lecture via Zoom on May 19.
The research he presented suggests that the childhood roots of stereotypes associated with intellectual ability can help explain the marked gender gap that still exists in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
Children, of course, do not need to decide their future college major or career path in kindergarten (no matter how many “what do you want to be when you grow up?” questions they’re peppered with by adults). However, according to Cimpian, processes formed in early childhood inform the pursuit of STEM fields in later life. Data shows that the considerable gender gap observed among academics and professionals in STEM fields is already detectable when high school students are asked whether they intend to major in STEM fields. So, to understand why fewer women land in these fields, he said, “we need to look earlier.”
What motivates people to pursue STEM studies or careers? It’s a complex question involving multiple factors, but Cimpian said the desire is often is rooted in a combination of interest and confidence in one’s abilities. And interest and confidence appear to be impacted by social perceptions.
“One thing that we know matters quite a bit,” he said in the lecture, “is the extent to which there is a match between how our society views the groups that we belong to … and how society typically portrays those who pursue STEM,” including our collective stereotypes about scientists and mathematicians. If these aspects (all other things being equal) match, we see more interest and confidence. If there is a mismatch, members of the group show less confidence and interest.
“As you may have guessed already, our society’s stereotypes about scientists are generally misaligned with our stereotypes about girls and women,” he said. “From a young age, girls’ STEM aspirations are hampered by this mismatch.”
STEM fields, it turns out, are more likely to be associated with those who are considered to be inherently, or naturally, brilliant. And men are more likely than women to be thought of in this way.
In a survey of faculty and graduate students from across many disciplines (STEM and non-STEM), results showed that fields whose members believed that a certain innate brilliance or talent is required to succeed in the field had fewer women PhDs. In other words, the more a field values perceived “brilliance,” the fewer women are represented in it. Even with no objective evidence suggesting men are more “naturally brilliant,” the bias against women, especially by members of STEM fields, remains.
In a survey of millions of reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, the word “genius” is mentioned two to three times more often in anonymous reviews of male professors. Female professors, on the other hand, are more likely to be called “friendly” or “nice.”
And in another disturbing study cited by Cimpian, parents were found to be more likely to search Google for information to determine if their sons are “geniuses” or are “gifted,” while searches about daughters were more likely to be about weight and/or physical appearance—this, despite data showing that girls are actually slightly more likely to qualify for gifted-education programs and boys are slightly more likely to be overweight.
So, how and when do people acquire this apparent stereotype association between males and the concept of brilliance? Cimpian and his colleagues have explored the early childhood origins of this issue. In a gender-balanced study of 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds (“the age of cooties,” as Cimpian noted, when in-group bias and defensiveness is typically high), researchers told children that one of the people they worked with was “really, really smart” (the study’s way of translating the concept of genius, brilliance and/or natural ability). The subjects were then shown images of unfamiliar people of both genders and asked to guess which image represented this “really, really smart” person. In this case, he noted, the sample images were all of white people to avoid interference from other cultural stereotypes that target the intellectual abilities of some racial/ethnic minority groups. (Cimpian’s team is investigating these important stereotypes in a separate line of work.)
While at age 5, both boys and girls were more likely to choose members of their own gender as the “really, really smart” person, at age 6, researchers noted a big drop in girls choosing women as the “really smart” candidate—even though girls, especially in early elementary years, tend to do better in school than their male peers.
In addition to the aforementioned studies (which involved groups of children in Illinois and New York), Cimpian and colleagues also performed a similar study of children—ages 8–12 this time—in Singapore, which consistently boasts very high math and science scores. This time, photos of both white and Asian individuals were shown, and the question took the form of an Implicit Association Test, in which participants had to quickly categorize images as belonging to traits on one side of the screen or the other. In this study, too, the results showed an association between males and brilliance that only increased with participants’ age.
What are the sources of these stereotypes? What (or who) is signaling to children this association between brilliance, STEM fields and being male? It could be, Cimpian said, that when children reach age 6, they start having more exposure to society at large, in particular because they’re most often enrolled in full-time elementary school. As early as kindergarten and first grade, there already appears to be a perception of math as a subject that requires one to be “really smart” in order to succeed, more so than reading or other academic skills. For younger children, stereotypes internalized and exhibited by their parents also have an impact.
In order to research whether these gender stereotypes about brilliance relate to children’s preferences and behaviors, Cimpian and his colleagues conducted a study of 64 6- and 7-year-olds in which two versions of an invented game—named “Zarky” and “Impok”—were presented. “Zarky” was described as a game for “really smart kids” while “Impok” was described as a game for kids “who try really hard.” Sure enough, the stereotype associating maleness with smarts was shown to be in effect undermining girls’ confidence, and thus, interest. Starting at age 6, the girls’ interest in the game for “really smart kids” was already lower than boys’. This early impact, Cimpian said, could have a tremendous cumulative effect on girls’ choices as they grow up, already feeling by early elementary school that tasks for “really smart kids” are not for them.
Ultimately, Cimpian said, he hopes his team’s work can help inform suggestions for counteracting the impacts of these stereotypes. “We’re not there quite yet,” he said.
He emphasized that the research implications are preliminary, but some helpful strategies may involve encouraging a growth mindset (including reinforcing dedication and hard work and deemphasizing the concept of “giftedness” or “genius”) and being mindful of the subtle implications of language. Phrases such as “girls are as good as boys” set an uneven playing field from the start and position boys as the standard to be compared against. Better, instead, to go with “boys and girls are equally good.”
If we want to encourage more participation from women and girls in STEM fields, it’s also important to expose children to successful female role models in these fields. However, Cimpian said, to avoid a backfire effect, the attainability factor must be emphasized. In other words, don’t raise successful women (or men, for that matter) as geniuses on a pedestal, portraying them as extraordinary, but rather make sure representations are inclusive and normalized, showing that STEM is for everyone.
In the Q&A following the lecture, a parent asked about potential correlations between gender stereotypes, interest in STEM, and racial/ethnic backgrounds (which may come with their own prejudices regarding STEM inclination). Looking at correlations between socioeconomic status and stereotypes of intellectual ability may add another dimension to future studies, Cimpian said. These questions of intersectionality, he said, are of increasing priority to researchers.
“These issues are beginning to be investigated and are really interesting and complex,” he said. “I look forward to coming back in a few years and telling you more about what we’re finding.”
Watch the lecture at http://youtube.com/bingnurseryschool.
Dr. Andrei Cimpian
Andrei Cimpian, PhD, is a Stanford alumnus who spent much time at Bing as a graduate student (2002–2008), calling it a “researcher’s paradise.” Cimpian is a professor of psychology at New York University. Among other topics, he has investigated how children think about intellectual ability—what is it? who has it?—and how these beliefs shape children’s aspirations. His research has been published in many peer-reviewed journals. He is the recipient of the 2018 American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR and The Economist. More information about his work is available at http://CimpianLab.com and on his Twitter feed, @AndreiCimpian.
About the Author
Karla Kane is an award-winning local journalist; former preschool teacher; and the singer, songwriter and ukulele player for the band The Corner Laughers. She has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in anthropology and lives in Redwood City with her husband and bandmate Khoi, her cats and her daughter, Octavia (a proud Bing alumna).