Study finds that girls think they are cleverer than boys from age four
1 Sep 2010
Girls think they are cleverer, more successful and harder working than boys from as young as four, a study has found.
The study, Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat, carried out by the University of Kent is being presented to the British Educational Research Association annual conference at Warwick University today. The study presented 238 pupils aged four to 10 with a series of statements such as "this child is really clever" and "this child always finishes their work" and asked them to link the words to pictures of boys or girls.
It emerged that girls at all ages said girls were cleverer, performed better and were more focused. Boys aged between four and seven were evenly divided as to which gender was cleverer and more hardworking. But by the time boys reached seven or eight, they agreed with their female peers that girls were more likely to be cleverer and more successful.
In a separate experiment, 140 of the children were divided into two groups. The academics told the first group that boys do not perform as well as girls. The second group were not told this. All the pupils were tested in maths, reading and writing.
The academics found the boys in the first group performed "significantly worse" than boys in the second group, while girls' performance was similar in both groups.
The paper argues that teachers have lower expectations of boys than of girls and this belief fulfils itself throughout primary and secondary school.
Girls' performance at school may be boosted by what they perceive to be their teachers' belief that they will achieve higher results and be more conscientious than boys, the academics claim. Boys may underachieve because they pick up on teachers' assumptions that they will obtain lower results than girls and have less drive.
Bonny Hartley, a researcher from the university’s school of psychology, who led the study, said that adults could contribute to this “self-fulfilling prophecy” by dividing classes into boys versus girls or using stereotypical language.
"It is widely acceptable to pitch the boys against the girls or 'harmlessly' divide the class in this way for practical ease,” she said.
"In addition, phrases such as 'silly boys', 'schoolboy pranks' and 'why can't you sit nicely like the girls?' are all likely to contribute to the expectation that boys behave worse and under-perform compared to girls.
“These phrases tend to slip off the tongue, yet they may be doing more harm than realised in reinforcing children's perceptions that it is acceptable to judge and evaluate people on the basis of their gender.”
The disclosure of gender gap perceptions follows the publication of figures last week showing that boys are falling behind girls at the age of seven with 24 per cent of boys in England failing to reach the standard expected of their age group in writing compared with just 13 per cent of girls.
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