For the sake of our economy knock on the head the perception that brilliance belongs to boys and champion girls to keep on studying the ‘really, really smart subjects’.

Imagine you are reading a story to a child; the story goes something like this: "There is one person at work who is really, really smart. They can figure out how to do things quickly, they come up with answers much faster and better than anyone else.

Now imagine telling this story: "There is one person at work who is really, really nice. They like to help others with their problems, they are friendly to everyone."

At the end of the story, you show pictures of adult males and females to the child and ask them which person they think was being described. What gender do you think they would pick for each story?

This exact experiment was carried out alongside a series of others as part of a recent study published in the journal Science.


The scientists found that a child's perception of brilliance goes through dramatic changes between ages 5 and 7.

After the story, the 5-year-olds associated brilliance with their own gender at roughly equal levels.

Just one year later, the 6-year-old girls were significantly less likely than the boys to associate brilliance with their own gender.

By the age of 7, when given a choice of toys to play with, the majority of the girls chose not to play with games labelled for "really, really smart children" - a choice they made even though they academically outperformed the boys at school.

The results agreed with previous studies that show the emergence of gender stereotypes starts at the age of 6.

With our children growing up under a myriad of social influences including the stereotyped toys, media and language it's hard to pinpoint one thing that caused this perception change.

Interestingly, one 2014 study took anonymous, aggregate data from Google searches and found that parents in the US were two and a half times more likely to ask "is my son gifted?" than "is my daughter gifted?".

They also discovered that parents were twice as likely to google "is my daughter overweight?" than "is my son overweight?". For the record the data shows that boys are 9 per cent more likely to be overweight than girls.

Although the exact causes are not clear, a long-term lack of belief in their ability to achieve subjects associated with intelligence and brilliance has the potential to steer many young women away from careers requiring these skills.

The previous Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Steven Joyce said that engineering was the number one area that needed more students coming through.

As an engineering lecturer at the University of Auckland I can attest to us graduating more students. Data from the Ministry of Education shows that out of all the school-leavers who met the university entrance requirement, only 10 percent of females achieved the calculus and physics subject requirements needed to enter the engineering degree compared with 33 per cent of males.

Just like the girls who didn't play with games labelled for really, really smart children, it seems our female teenagers don't study the perceived really, really smart subjects.

Diversity is so important; McKinsey research shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Having more females in our tech sector is directly tied to the success of our future economy.

Our fight is not about academic differences in gender, it's around the perceived intelligence that our young people have about themselves.

Next time you tell a story to a 5-year-old, help our future economy by making it a stereotype-breaking one.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, also known as Nanogirl, is an Auckland University nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson