For Women, Confidence Can Counter Stereotype Threat

“Listen, Hermione, I can tell it’s not a girl. I can just tell.”

“The truth is that you don’t think a girl would have been clever enough!”

This scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince illustrates an attitude that has pervaded generations and societies for thousands of years – men are smarter than women.

In the scene, Harry goes on to say there’s no way he thinks that since he’s hung around Hermione for the past five years. But the fact Hermione brought it up shows no matter what world someone lives in, fictional or real, we are raised to believe this.

By age 6, girls already believe certain activities are not right for them because they have picked up on stereotypes that boys are smarter, The New York Times reported. Teachers and parents seem to reinforce this statement, whether intentionally or not.

“The older girls get, the more they begin to realize and internalize society’s expectations for them,” said Jarin Eisenberg, an online instructor at Florida Tech. “Though we have come a long way in regards to women’s rights, for young girls, it can often feel like it is the prettiest girl in the room that matters most. Our messaging to boys and girls is also very different. At this age, society tends to reinforce the idea that boys are born to be leaders, and at the same time society constantly reminds girls to be ladylike and to be someone that boys will admire, and believe it or not, want to marry someday. Girls begin to internalize that looks are what matter most, and that internalization is a distraction from their growth and development and is detrimental to their self-esteem.”

Boy Genius

In a 2015 Princeton University study, researchers asked a wide range of scholars: “To be really good at [your field of study], do you need natural talent?” The results showed it’s less likely for women to work in fields, such as STEM, economics and music composition, where one could be seen as a genius. This applied to African-Americans as well, and the study showed that those being surveyed tended to agree that women and African-Americans were not as well-suited for the work.

The researchers believe that fictional geniuses are most often male is another reason women are being held back from these fields. A Google search for “fictional geniuses” on Google reveals male characters like Sherlock Holmes, Spock and Tony Stark.

The findings of the study didn’t show that women are less brilliant than men. When they examined results to see if the field’s complexity reduced female success, there was nothing to indicate that. The findings simply showed the differences between men and women were presumed.

Combating the Gender Bias

While we have made great strides toward gender equality, gender bias at work, home and the classroom continues to be an issue. It is important for both parents and teachers to consider gender bias, but which is more important? Eisenberg said both are equally important, but affect children at different stages of life.

“Think about how we shop for boys and girls, how baby showers are decorated and the games people play. The idea that there are boy things or girl things, that we want to fit individuals so young into such a very narrow mold is problematic,” Eisenberg said. “Parents and educators alike have a responsibility to provide a nurturing and safe environment – providing that doesn’t have anything to do with a girl who loves football or a boy who loves tap.”

According to an article written for PBS, “the controversy about overall intelligence between the genders is over.” Research shows girls’ brains tend to give a verbal advantage while boys’ brains seem to support spatial intelligence. Different does not indicate good or bad, but parents should try to present their children with several types of activities as experience can affect how the brain works. Avoiding gender bias starts at home.

“Sit and have a conversation about gender norms, and how the images they see are not a standard they have to hold themselves to,” Eisenberg said. “That their looks are not their worth, and as they get older, it gets better.”

Eisenberg presents a few ways parents can help girls realize their potential:

  • Buy toys that encourage curiosity and development of core skills
  • Let them play in the mud and get their shorts dirty
  • Encourage them to take risks like climbing a tree
  • Tell them their body and brain is built for so much more than someone else’s enjoyment
  • Expose them to women who are leading the way in their areas of expertise, in their communities, and in their homes
  • Show them diversity in what it means to be a woman
  • Teach them to be kind to each other – the other girl in the room is not an enemy, but an ally
  • Have them read books where they can find female characters that will shape their perception and inform their opinionsBy doing this, parents can help their daughters and sons combat those cultural stereotypes that contribute to gender bias.

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