Remember Winnie Cooper, the girl next door, aka Kevin Arnold’s love interest on "The Wonder Years?" Well, turns out that the actor who played Winnie, Danica McKellar, was far more than a pretty face.
After her role on "The Wonder Years" was done and dusted, Danica went on to major in Mathematics at UCLA and became something of a calculus whiz. In fact, the quintessential girly girl, with her perfectly shiny hair and her damsel-in-distress eyes, now has a physics theorem named after her (or at least the actor who played her). Last year, NOVA’s "Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" video featured Danica for her prowess in mathematics.
In the video Danica admits that she was worried she wouldn’t make the cut for Math at UCLA. “Who did I think would do well? Somebody who looked the part more than me,” she says.
That same mindset seems to have seeped into the minds of our girls as well. In a 2017 study by researchers from three US universities, it was found that six-year-old girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” In fact, by the age of six, girls in the study tended to steer clear of games that were meant for the “really, really smart.”
Yes, as a parent, I was aghast too. This was a 2017 study – not something from an era where girls were told they were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” And yet, the study showed that six-year-old girls were significantly less likely to associate brilliance with their own gender. Like Danica, did they feel like they didn’t quite look the part?
In an article in The Guardian, Christina Spears Brown, the author of "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue," says, “This study shows that girls are internalizing those cultural messages early in development, believing that yes, they may work hard, but they are not naturally really smart.”
She adds that the research fits in with previous work, which found hard work is attributed to girls, and natural ability for boys.
The fact is that both boys’ and girls’ achievement in math and science is on par with each other at the K-12 level, according to the National Science Foundation. However, research shows that while women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences, engineering and math. While women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they account for only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
A 2014 study summarizes that, “across the academic spectrum, women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.”
This under-representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers possibly points to this bias that begins in early childhood. What causes girls to believe this stereotype that boys are innately smarter?
In a New York Times article, professors from NYU and Princeton suggest that American kids are picking up cultural stereotypes about brilliance. They point to media as one avenue that perpetuates this idea through consistent images of male brilliance. Then they turn the spotlight on where it gets slightly uncomfortable: our homes. The article refers to a 2014 study where it was found that American parents googled “Is my son a genius?” twice as often as they searched for “Is my daughter a genius?”
We definitely don’t want to make this a boys versus girls battle of who is smarter. But we do need to make sure that we’re encouraging hard work and tenacity and intellectual brilliance to both boys and girls.
While none of us want our kids to be arrogant about their smarts, we need to be cognizant of empowering our girls with the idea that they are brilliant enough to do anything with their lives.
Here are some ways we can break gender stereotypes when it comes to intellect.
Be aware of your own biases
How often do you and I picture stern-faced, Albert Einstein look-alikes when I think of scientists and engineers? Admittedly, for me, it’s more often than not. Over the years, it’s what I’ve seen in the media. It may not be a hard-nosed bias, but it is a stereotype that we may have unwittingly bought into and inadvertently passed on to our kids.
We need to examine our daily lives as well. Are our kids seeing that while mom and dad may have different roles, they are both capable to taking on tasks for the “really, really smart.” I know that sometimes out of sheer laziness or unwillingness to learn, I tend to pass on the “smart” tasks to my husband without really evaluating how my own kids may be internalizing the false message that dads are more intelligent than moms.
When we paint in broad strokes and speak in generalizations, our kids view the world through the lens of social stereotypes. In an article in The Conversation, NYU psychology professor Marjorie Rhodes recommends language that uses specifics – instead of making general claims, even if they’re positive traits.
Instead of saying, “Girls can be mathematicians,” we should focus on the individual. Affirm your child by saying, “You can be a mathematician if you want to.” If your child speaks in a generalization (“boys like science”) steer the conversation toward who in particular your child might be referring to: “You mean, Jared likes studying science?” These may be minor nuances in language, but it’s definitely another tool in your arsenal against gender stereotyping.
Skip the self deprecation
What if you sucked at Math in school? Maybe your child doesn’t need to know all the gory details. If you lead with a, “That’s so hard. I gave up on Trigonometry when I was your age” spiel, chances are your daughter will follow suit. In a recent interview actress-turned-Mathematician Danica McKellar says that at book signings she often discovers that boys and girls approach math very differently. “The issue is they don’t think of themselves as being really good at it,” Danica says, referring to why girls tend to drop out of math courses. “Math is always going to have stumbling blocks. Boys tend to see it as a temporary stumbling block … girls see it as evidence of what they’ve known all along – that they don’t belong in math."
We need to teach our kids that challenges are just a bump in the road. Like the scientist Marie Curie is quoted as saying: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Point out gender stereotyping when you see it. Start with asking questions yourself. Then let your kids fire away. Let them question if there are girl colors and boy colors, if soccer is only for boys, if girls can go to Mars, if only boys can be pilots. Then show them examples of those who bravely and unapologetically break the mold.
Intentionally incorporate women role models
Yes, the idea is kind of archaic, but it’s still worth a shot. In our conversations with our kids, we need to weave in examples of women who beat the odds to make a name for themselves as scientists, astronauts, engineers and mathematicians.
The website A Mighty Girl lists dozens of age-appropriate books about women with brilliant, scientific minds. Stories about women like Caroline Herschel who discovered two galaxies with a homemade telescope, about Grace Hopper, the clever woman who invented the COBOL computer language, about Jane Goodall who learned to communicate with chimpanzees, about Eva Lovelace, the “enchantress of numbers” and many other inspiring women.
Children’s books like "Amazing Grace" and "Allie’s Basketball Dream" can start the conversation about how our talents and our passions are not dictated by our gender.
I think back to the conversation in the movie "Hidden Figures," where John Glenn tells the guy in charge of spacecraft design Al Harrison, “Let's get the girl to check the numbers.”
Harrison asks, “You mean Katherine?”
“Yes, sir, the smart one. And if she says they're good, I'm ready to go,” responds Glenn.
John Glenn, the first American who orbited the earth, put his life in the hands of a brilliant woman. A woman who everyone else underestimated. A woman who didn’t quite fit the bill.
There may be some “hidden figures” in our classrooms and in our homes. They don’t want to risk the spotlight because they don’t feel like they “look the part.” It’s time to tell them that, in fact, they do.