Do our children inherently think men are smarter than women?

While solving a problem, my daughter said to me: “Don’t worry, Mommy. We can ask Daddy because he’s smarter.”

Kristina K | Stocksy United

A few years ago, my then five-year old daughter—sweet and sassy and curly-haired—saw my frustration as I battled to solve a problem. Sidling up to me, she offered some advice: “Don’t worry, Mommy. We can ask Daddy because he’s smarter.”

Now hold on just a minute, young lady.

My daughter’s question stopped me short. There is no doubt that her Daddy is smart, but how had she come to the conclusion that he, being a man, was smarter than his wife?

A recent study published in Science magazine suggests a large number of girls believe that men are inherently smarter and more talented than women. When shown a photo of four happy, professionally dressed, and successful adults and asked “who’s the smartest?”, girls at age 5 were as likely to pick a woman from the photo as a man, but the study of 400 children showed that by age 7, girls were far more likely to pick a man. Or in our case, my daughter was more likely to choose Daddy.

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If it is true, then, that our girls are picking up on a bias against women from a young age, it should certainly raise questions for us as a society … but it also raises some searching questions for me, personally. How had I contributed to that belief? What had my daughter gleaned from me, from church, from movies and people around her that had led her to this conclusion? What positive words had I said about men and failed to say about women that would lead in that direction? What had I valued in myself (or failed to value in myself) that was forming the impression that women were less than? And, once I recognized all this, how should I respond to her?

Early on, I made a decision to never speak about my weight or body in a negative way in front of my daughter: I do not want her to learn self-loathing and body-shaming from me. The question before me was now: what changes did I need to make so that she did not learn self-limitation and ambition-shaming from me?

As Andre Cimpian, co-author of the study, points out, “As a society, we associate a high level of intellectual ability with males more than females, and our research suggests that this association is picked up by children as young as six and seven.” The danger in this view is that girls—believing that boys are inherently smarter—may be less inclined to chase ambitious dreams and careers, particularly those perceived as being for “smarter” people, like science, mathematics, and philosophy.

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At the very least, this calls for us to rethink the things we say to our children about our abilities. Repeated self-abasing jokes about “mommy brain” can lead to our children intuiting that mommies do, in fact, have squishy mental ability. Our female tendencies to build community by praising others (often at our own expense) can communicate a lack of confidence in our own abilities: a trait that starts young and tarries long. In the same study in Science magazine, the seven year old girls who believed that men were smarter were also more likely to select a game for children who “tried” hard” than for ones who were “really smart”. It is unsurprising then that later in life, women lack confidence to apply for jobs they don’t feel 100% qualified for, whereas men will send in a resume if they meet 60% of the requirements. These feelings of gendered inadequacy have early beginnings.

How, then, can we change the script and say and ask better things to shape our children’s views? In my own conversations with my children, I am making a concerted effort to effect change in three ways:

  • Asking better questions when we talk to little girls: rather than focusing on how cute they look, I’m asking what books they love reading, and what they love to create.
  • Introducing our children to role models of smart, capable women and talking about their abilities. Recently, these conversations have included the movie Hidden Figures (which is valuable for our sons as well as our daughters) and the Hamilton: a musical about the Founding Fathers in which the women really shine.
  • Choosing better games, toys and activities that give both boys and girls opportunities to shine creatively (like these fun Goldiblox )

As a Christian, I also need to be mindful about the truths I am imparting to my children about how God created men and women. I need to both say and show them we believe God has made men and women in His image. Men and women were created to work together: to create and cultivate this world, and to rule over it using all their talents and gifts and abilities to promote human flourishing. Essential to this, then, is my creating and taking opportunities to point out to my children how men and women—both Daddy and Mommy—are using our smarts to contribute to human good.

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Acknowledging that our gifts and abilities are there not for bragging rights and self-advancement, but for service and stewardship, goes a long way towards reorienting our thinking on talking about these things with our children. I want my daughter to know she’s smart not so that she’ll feel good about herself, but so that she will put those smarts to work in God’s world without second-guessing the importance of her doing so.

As mothers and women, we play a part in shaping the cultural narrative about women, our abilities, and our ambition. In her treatise on a woman’s calling in the office, home, and the world, A Woman’s Place, Katelyn Beaty offers this wise corrective: “Rather than dismissing ambition outright, we need to ask what ends our ambitions serve and amplify those ambitions when they serve good, holy ends.”

The world’s problems are serious, interconnected, and complex; and it will take the smarts and ambition of both men and women pursuing good and holy ends to tackle them. So, in response to her “let’s ask Daddy because he’s smart,” lies a golden opportunity. Let’s honor our girls’ pink thinking caps and ask in reply: “You and I are smart, too. How do you think we can solve this?”


Bronwyn Lea
Bronwyn Lea
Bronwyn Lea is a South-African-born writer, speaker, and mom to three in Northern California. She writes about the holy and hilarious in life, relationships and culture on her blog and other fun places like the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, RELEVANT and Christianity Today.

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