By Emma Young
Though girls and boys do equally well on maths tests, the stereotype that girls aren’t as naturally able at maths — or as likely to be extremely smart — is adopted early; even 6-year-olds in the US endorse it. Of course, these stereotypes harm women in an educational setting and in their professional lives, point out the authors of a new study in Developmental Psychology. So it’s important to understand what gives rise to them. Eleanor Chestnut at Stanford University and her colleagues now report that one common and well-intentioned way of attempting to convey girls’ equality with boys actually backfires: saying that girls are “just as good” as boys at something leads the listener to conclude that boys are naturally better, and girls must work harder to equal them.
Earlier work has shown that we use the syntax of a sentence to make inferences about the relative status of objects and social groups. Typically, we view the thing or person that is being compared to as the more typical or superior reference example. So, if you were to read “Molly’s cake is as good as Jessica’s”, you’d be likely to infer that Jessica’s is the exemplar that Molly is striving to equal.
“Girls are just as good at boys at maths” is something that family members, caregivers, teachers and public figures all say to try to promote gender equality, note the researchers. And in 2018, Chestnut and her colleague Ellen M Markman reported that adults who hear that statement infer that boys are more skilled at maths and have more natural ability. Unfortunately, then, it seems to perpetuate the very stereotype that it seeks to counteract. In the new study, the team set out to discover whether stereotypes can not only be perpetuated but learned, based on syntax alone.
First, the team studied 288 adults, who were recruited online. These participants read sentences that incorporated nonsense words for abilities or traits. The team found that people who read that girls are “as good as boys” at “thrupping”, say, or “trewting”, inferred more natural skill to the boys, and that girls had to work harder to be “trewtic”, and so on. When the boys were reported to be “as good as girls”, though, the girls were perceived to be superior — showing the influence of syntax in the participant’s judgements. When the sentence read, “Suppose someone tells you that boys and girls [or girls and boys] are equally good at thrupping”, and so on, neither gender was perceived to be naturally superior.
The team then ran a similar study with 337 children, aged 7 to 11, who were recruited from museums in the San Francisco Bay area. This time, the researchers used puppets (who said they wanted to tell the children about boys and girls on their planet) as well as written statements. And instead of using nonsense words, the researchers referred to activities that the children would understand but which the team didn’t think they’d have a strong pre-existing gender bias about — whistling, hopping on one foot, doing handstands and snapping.
When these children were told that boys [or girls] are “as good as” girls [or boys] at one of these things, the children more likely to report that the gender in the reference position, at the end of the sentence, was naturally better, and would have to work less hard to be skilled at it. Also in line with the findings from adults, when the boys and girls on the alien planet were presented as being “equally as good” at an activity, the children didn’t view either gender as being naturally superior. The children’s age made no difference; they all made similar inferences.
“We conclude that is critically important to consider how we frame equality when talking to children,” the researchers write. The work suggests that if a child does not already hold the stereotype that boys are better than girls at maths, or more likely to be extremely smart, hearing that girls are “as good as boys” in these spheres could actually teach it. Public figures, websites, statements on Twitter, and even psychological research articles readily equate girls’ abilities with boys’ or women’s with men’s, the team notes.
Their work suggests that presenting girls and boys, and men and women, as being “equally as good” at something is a far better strategy. “Until women and men are on equal syntactic footing, they will not be on equal social footing,” they conclude.