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By age 6, kids tend to see white men as more 'brilliant' than white women

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Albert Einstein. Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Edison. Steve Jobs.

Picture a brilliant person in your mind's eye and you're likely to conjure a white male. That idea gets into kids' heads as early as the age of 6, a new study finds.

Researchers who polled more than 200 New York kindergartners and first-graders found that they had already begun to believe that white men are more "brilliant" than white women. That notion helps lay the groundwork for a pervasive stereotype that privileges white boys over other children, and may have implications for their future careers and the course of their lives, scientists said.

"This white-male-genius stereotype that we have culturally in our society really affects kids and their beliefs about who is brilliant and who can become brilliant," said Mary Murphy, a social psychologist at Indiana University who was not involved in the new study.

In the United States, women earn more than half of the college and graduate school degrees. They also outperform boys at school, including in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. But that hasn't stopped people like former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers from saying things like the reason there are fewer women in top-level science jobs is a "different availability of aptitude at the high end."

Experts say the idea that "brilliance" is necessary for certain disciplines and jobs is widely shared, and there's a growing body of evidence that people associate such brilliance with white men.


Andrei Cimpian, a psychologist at New York University, has been exploring these biases and their implications for years. For instance, he and colleagues found that in fields that prize "brilliance" and "genius," there were far fewer women and African Americans with PhDs.

That discrepancy can be found in elementary school classrooms. One study reported that even when black students had test scores comparable to those of white students, they were far less likely to be assigned to gifted programs unless their teacher was black.

Stereotypes about intelligence and gender take root at a young age. Cimpian and his colleagues have shown that while 5-year-old boys and girls each think their own gender is more likely to be brilliant, by age 6, girls have started to absorb and express the idea that men are more likely to be brilliant than women.

That paper, published in 2017 in Science, involved a largely white student body. For their new study, published this month in the Journal of Social Issues, Cimpian's team wanted to find out whether this gender stereotype was shared by students of other races.


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