The journal Science this week published the findings of a study that looked at young children’s attitudes to high-level intellectual ability. The study found that common stereotypes associate notions of brilliance and genius with men more than women. These stereotypes discourage women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance (such as physics and philosophy). The researchers showed that these stereotypes are endorsed by, and influence the interests of, children as young as 6. Specifically, 6-year-old girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” Also at age 6, girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are “really, really smart.” The findings suggest that gendered notions of brilliance are acquired early and have an immediate effect on children’s interests.
Research findings like these would be depressing at the best of times. How much more of a cause for concern they are in a sudden new era of attack upon women’s equality of rights, on women’s voices, on diversity of race, gender and sexuality?
There are too many examples: surrounded by men, Donald Trump began his first week in office with an assault on women’s global reproductive rights; women are having to protest in Poland, in Ireland, in El Salvador, in Turkey at attacks on their civil liberties; Russian representatives have just voted through a bill to reduce penalties for domestic violence in order to protect what they see as “family values”; in the UK, a Fawcett Society Report details how nine out of ten female MPs have been the victims of verbal abuse and death threats and one in six regretting ever standing for Parliament.
We are reminded daily how fragile the equalities we have perhaps taken for granted in recent years are and how quickly the clock can turn back. Never has it been more important for teachers and parents of girls and young women to encourage them to make their voices heard; to remind them that there should be no limits on the choices they make about themselves and their careers; to support them in speaking out against prejudice and stereotyping.
Next week is Wellbeing Week at BHHS. I hope that some of the activities will help our girls to feel energised and empowered in what they do and that the week will serve as a reminder of how important it is to look after ourselves so that we can face the world with confidence and fortitude.