“When I was your age, there were lots of children at the kindergarten where I went. But there was one child who was really special. This child was really, really smart. This child learned things very quickly and could answer even the hardest questions from the teacher. This child was really, really smart.”
This story was shown to boys and girls of 5 years and above in a study by Dr Andrei Cimpian at the Cognitive Development Lab in New York recently, and the results are all over the media this morning.
Put simply, the story was read to a group of children around 6 years old. The kids were then asked to pick from a selection of photos, which child they thought the story was about.
The study suggested that children of 5, would pretty randomly pick male and female photos as the “clever” subject of the story.
Girls of 6 and 7, however, are apparently more likely to choose a male photo as being a picture of the “clever” child.
As a writer of stories for children of that kind of age group, and particularly stories with a very clever female lead character, my interest was raised.
So the question is, does this really show that girls of 6 and 7 think they’re less clever than their male counterparts?
I would argue that it doesn’t.
It’s very difficult to write a completely gender less story – which doesn’t give any behavioral clues about the lead character leading you to assume their sex (a whole other area), but I think looking at the tale above, the researchers have done pretty well.
So why do I think it’s misleading?
Well, like it or not, there’s a built in assumption in our language towards the choice of “he” rather than “she” where no gender is specified. This appears everywhere, despite the fact that there are a lot of attempts to correct it.
I would suggest that it’s this that the children are reacting to – the choice of “he” where no gender is specified – rather than the cleverness of the individual being described.
I’d be willing to bet that a similar story about someone who was described as “dumb” would also lead the children to pick a male candidate over a female one.
What do you think?