Why Being Really, Really Smart is not the Point

Why Being Really, Really Smart is not the Point

27 February 2017

A recent episode of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Five-Year-Olds and the tests given to them got me thinking anew about gender stereotypes. To the evident outrage of the female psychologist involved, it was clear that girls and boys at the age of five had already developed some very definite views about the ‘differences’ between the genders, and that these views were very much based on the stereotypes that many people hoped had started to be broken down. Girls are supposed to be emotional and care about their appearance; boys are stronger, more active (and maybe a bit smelly, seemed to be the conclusion!)

I considered this, together with a recent report on a study at New York University, also looking at the perceptions of five-year-olds (and in this case also six and seven- year-olds), this time to see whether there was a difference in how likely girls and boys were to think of either men or women as ‘brilliant’ or ‘really, really smart’ as the study put it.

In their first test, 96 boys and girls of five, six and seven were read a story involving an obviously brilliant person and asked to guess the person’s gender. In the second test, they were also shown pictures of pairs of adults and asked to choose which they thought was more intelligent. And finally, they were asked to associate a number of objects and characteristics (such as ‘being smart’) with pictures of men or women.

What this research showed was that at five years old, girls were as likely to associate being brilliant with women as with men. But by the time they were six, this changed. The six-year-old boys chose men as the brilliant ones 65% of the time, whereas girls only chose women 48% of the time. That sounds to me as though it’s the boys that change, which may well be in line with the observations that many of us make! But it was also revealing to hear that the study also showed that the girls were all able to state (rightly) that girls do better in terms of school grades, but did not seem to link the higher level of achievement that this implies with a higher rate of ‘brilliance’. As one of the authors of the study said “Already by these young ages girls are discounting the evidence that is in front of their eyes and basing their ideas about who is really smart on other things” – those other things still being based on the traditional stereotypes, it seems.

To be honest, I don’t think we should be surprised at this. We’re still in a world where the media seems to value women and girls more for how they look than for their skills and abilities, where film and TV programmes that girls watch are about mermaids and princesses, who are ultimately saved by princes. Much of the culture around us perpetuates the roles and expectations of a very traditional view of society – indeed one of the purposes of a fairy tale is to do just this.

This is why I think girls do better in all girls’ schools, where we know about these issues and where they are able to ‘be themselves’ without the damaging influences that affect so many others. But if five, six and seven-year-olds have already taken on board the traditional stereotypes then we still need to consciously battle back against them – because they’re already in us.

What we have to do is recognise the signs when we’ve fallen under the influence of these old ideas and make sure we challenge them and overcome them. Let’s take an example which I think is very relevant to the findings of the US study I mentioned earlier. Girls in that study knew girls in general were doing better at school but still thought boys were more likely to be brilliant. Why? Well, in another part of the study girls and boys were asked to play two games. They were told that one game would be more interesting to people who were very clever and that one would be more interesting to people who tried really hard. At five, there was no difference in the level of interest between girls and boys but, by six, there was a substantial difference. By this age boys chose the game for those who are clever, whereas girls on the whole chose the one for those who try really hard. What this shows very clearly is that the genders have (probably both), by that age, separated effort off from brilliance (or we might call it ‘achievements which are really valuable’). I think this is really consistent with the idea that it’s more clever not to try, not to put in the effort, and that’s a risk that boys are often more willing to take.

If there’s one idea that we ensure we break away from at St Mary’s Calne it’s that one. It is not more laudable to succeed without putting in the effort; if that happens to you, you’re just lucky – and just think what you might have achieved if you had also put in the work!

Those who are really successful in any field are generally the people who combine talent and effort. You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule, which says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to really master a skill. The writer Angela Duckworth in her book Grit expands on that and adds the nuance of ‘deliberate practice’ by which she means that it’s not enough to practise, you have to learn from feedback and set out to improve each time you engage in learning. So what is really important in the end is not being really, really smart or brilliant but building your capacity for learning and being able to persist when you find things difficult. This is what leads to real achievement – and girls have just as much right to expect that as boys.


Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne

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