On January 21, 2017, Laura Seagraves and Claudia Pasma stood on a small stage facing a crowd of around 15,000 people. The crowd welcomed them as the organizers of Cleveland, Ohio’s Women’s March. Cheers trailed between the buildings surrounding Public Square.
When the crowd quieted, they began to tell their stories. Seagraves and Pasma are PhD students in physics at the Case Western Reserve University, and each of them has been told repeatedly that she’s not what a physicist looks like. Seagraves told us of the time she went to take the physics section of the graduate record examination or GRE. She was asked by a test administer if she was in the right place, and even after Seagraves confirmed that she was there to take the physics exam, the woman asked her, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be taking this exam?”
Seagraves noticed that she was the only woman in the line.
“Preconceived ideas about what politicians and scientists look like prevent people from judging our abilities based on our accomplishments and the knowledge we demonstrate. However, I don’t believe this bias is usually intentional,” Seagraves said to a silent crowd.
According to a series of recent studies, this bias could begin to form—intentional or not—around age 6. Funded by the National Science Foundation, PhD student Lin Bian from the University of Illinois, professor of philosophy Sarah-Jane Leslie of Princeton, and professor of psychology Andrei Cimpian of New York University preformed four studies. Each of these studies focused on boys and girls aged 5, 6 and 7. The researchers showed the children images of attractive men and women in professional dress as well as children their own age and asked them to identify who they thought was more intelligent and who they thought was kind.
The age 5 groups—both boys and girls—frequently chose their own gender as intelligent, but the age 6 and 7 groups overwhelmingly chose the male figures as intelligent, even though they were more likely to say that girls would do better in school. Meanwhile, girls in all age groups were most likely to label members of their own gender as “really, really nice,” and in a study in which girls were asked to choose between games for people who are “really, really smart” and games for people who “tried really, really hard,” the 6- and 7-year-olds tended to gravitate toward the latter.
Merely a year in school is enough to begin to potentially change girls’ perceptions of themselves and their gender.
The children in this study, however, were predominately white and middle-class. The paper itself states the importance of reaching into other demographics to test these findings. There’s no word yet on when—or if—these studies will continue.
But it’s never too late to defy stereotypes.
When she was in grade school, Seagraves’s favorite subjects were math and science. She was often told by the girls in her class that math was for boys. She put off taking physics until her sophomore year in college because she had the idea that it was something only boys could be good at. However, she says that, even though she fell in love with physics, she doubts whether she would’ve decided to major in physics if not for the encouragement of a professor.
“It is bothersome that kids start to pick these things up at such a young age,” Seagraves said, “but I don’t think it’s surprising. I think attention is starting to be brought to these issues, and the culture is slowly starting to change, but we still have a long way to go.”