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By age six, girls don’t think they are as smart as boys …but not at Stuart!

Early and consistent exposure to confidence-building experiences and female role models help Stuart girls defy stereotypes. —by Stacy Cramer

By age six, girls don’t think they are as smart as boys,” say researchers at Princeton University, New York University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who published their findings in a paper titled “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence interests” in the January 2017 issue of the journal Science. The researchers found that at this very young age, girls begin to decide that some activities are “not for them” because they are not smart enough.

This new research builds on studies that have shown that girls grow up believing that their voices are not good enough, that math is too hard, engineering is just for boys and that history is full of only very important men who accomplished many great things. Cultural stereotypes such as these are reinforced not only by American media and pop culture, but also in school textbooks where men account for 90 percent of historical figures and there are scant role models in whom girls can see themselves. For example, just 20 percent of graduates in physics, 7.8 percent of aerospace engineers and only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. (Data from a 2016 U.S. Department of Labor survey and, June 17, 2017.) 

Dr. Andrei Cimpian, head of a cognitive development lab at NYU, and Dr. Sara-Jane Leslie, founding director of the cognitive science program at Princeton, summarized their findings in an article for the New York Times titled “Why Young Girls Don’t Think They Are Smart Enough.” They found that “By the age of six, young girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant,” and that “In later life, these differences in children’s perceptions are likely to be consequential.” The researchers found that both boys and girls, at a young age, assimilate the stereotype that brilliance is a male quality. In a 2015 study, they found that the same career fields we talk about as being underrepresented by women (such as science and engineering) are also fields that are thought of as requiring “brilliance.” Cimpian and Leslie surmise, “It may be that the roots of this underrepresentation stretch all the way back to childhood.”

So what can be done?

As experts in educating girls, at Stuart, we already know that it’s crucial to educate young women to know that they are powerful, they can affect change and their voices are important—particularly in male-dominated arenas. What’s new about this research is that we are learning that it’s more critical than ever to start early, as we do with our four-year-old girls in junior kindergarten, and even our Early Childhood Program. As a teacher of young girls, I feel a personal responsibility to my students to defy the research findings, so instead of feeling hindered because of their gender, I work with my girls to develop the confidence and competence they need to feel empowered. This new study confirms that the work we do with our girls in the Lower School at Stuart can directly correlate to future education and career choices our girls make later in life. That’s pretty amazing!

In our all-girl environment, nearly every interaction and experience can affect a young girl’s perception of who she is and who she will become. As teachers, we think about this all the time! Two of the most important ways we help girls combat the cultural stereotypes around brilliance discussed in this new research include 1) teaching our girls that they can get smarter through hard work and perseverance (also known as a growth mindset), and 2) providing our girls with countless female role models and mentors so they can “see it to be it.” 

Growth mindset is the idea, put forth by Carol Dweck, PhD, in her book Mindset, that we can “grow our brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems.” Dweck, a Stanford-based researcher, says, “In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence … they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”  This is particularly important to impart in girls who tend to be perfectionists and don’t want to fail. I love the Thomas Edison quote, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

Ensuring that each one of our girls develops a growth mindset is central to our educational philosophy at Stuart and is reflected in how we teach. At the core of our philosophical approach to teaching is the emphasis on the process. Through our writing workshop model in the Lower School, our girls learn to write with an emphasis on the drafting process. Beginning in the first grade, students revise each writing assignment multiple times, strengthening their writing by focusing on the various skills introduced during each lesson. Every girl is empowered to self-edit her work, understand her errors and improve upon her previous work. As the girls fine tune their writing skills, they are, more importantly, building their resilience, confidence and growth mindset approach toward learning. They become better writers and realize that the writing process is a lifelong journey of expression, not a fixed assignment with an end date.

Our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum also provides a concrete example of how a growth mindset is instilled in each of our girls. Each STEM class begins with a question for the girls to ponder, and then students are put into collaborative groups to actively engage with materials and manipulatives in order to problem-solve the question. In a trial and error format, the girls are challenged to find solutions, as they are reminded that there is often more than one path to the solution and there is never a wrong answer—as long as one can successfully prove and defend it. Through this process of exploration, inquiry and creativity, the girls focus on broadening their perspectives and finding multiple solutions, and further discovery is encouraged. 

Cimpian and Leslie reference Carol Dweck’s research on developing a growth mindset and offer it as a possible solution to help counter stereotypes. The researchers surmise that, “The relevant stereotypes, already in place at the age of six, seem to fixate on who is supposed to have innate ability. If innate ability is seen as secondary, then the power of these stereotypes is diminished.”

Cimpian and Leslie also point out that providing girls with successful role models can help to boost girls’ motivation and protect them from feeling secondary to boys. They conclude the Times article by suggesting that early exposure “to the countless contributions made by women may have the best chance of convincing little girls that they are, in fact, smart enough.”

One of the most important benefits girls get at Stuart is the exposure and access to female heroes in history and real-life role models and mentor women of today. As a PS–12 Sacred Heart community, our young girls get to see the amazing things that their Middle and Upper School sisters are doing all the time. From robotics to field hockey to the Upper School musical, the impact of having young women leaders as role models (who may also give you hugs in the hallways) cannot be overstated. 

Additionally, our girls consistently see and hear stories of trailblazing women from history, as well as those who are making a difference today. In fact, our girls recently got to meet one trailblazing woman from history in person! Our Lower School girls were honored with a visit from Civil Rights activist Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to integrate an elementary school in the South. As Ms. Bridges described her childhood, my first graders could completely identify with her, because she was in first grade when she entered the integrated school in New Orleans. Needless to say, the girls were very excited to get our class book autographed—what an experience! In addition to special experiences like meeting Ruby Bridges, our girls get to meet with a wide range of risk-taking women such as scientists, engineers, authors, artists and even a Broadway orchestra conductor, to name a few.

A unique and special program in the Lower School at Stuart is Women We Admire Day, a much-beloved tradition. The day is really a culmination of a lot of hard work by the girls during the entire month of March, which is now recognized as Women’s History Month. First graders spend time in literacy and social studies classes researching influential women from either history or the present day. Each student selects one woman to focus on, writes a biography and creates a presentation to share with the Stuart community. While the girls are researching and learning facts, they share, compare and contrast their women. On Women We Admire Day, each girl dresses up as and takes on the persona of their chosen woman for the entire day. We formally introduce everyone in Cor Unum, and the girls are all part of a talking museum in the athletics center. They also participate in small group centers where they learn about other changemaker women in history or the present day. Our own Stuart alumnae visit the Lower School to share their experiences and accomplishments as well. It’s a wonderful way to have women’s contributions shine in the eyes of a Stuart girl!

The past does not have to be the future. This is a call to action. Cimpian and Leslie suggest that “Early and consistent exposure to such protective factors—and to the countless contributions made by women—may have the best chance of convincing little girls that they are, in fact, smart enough.”

In Stuart’s Lower School, we intentionally immerse our students in an environment rich with opportunities that build confidence and expand possibilities. Whether it’s explaining math lessons to peers or meeting powerful Stuart alumnae role models, our youngest girls are engaged with inspiring curriculum and empowering experiences to help shape them into the next generation of brilliant leaders.  


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