Girls More Likely Than Boys To Blame Academic Failure on Lack of Talent: Study
There’s a line in Hidden Figures when Mary, a black woman at NASA, is faced with a crushing setback that delays her dream of becoming an engineer. “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line,” she muses.
The line still resonates today, and encapsulates how systemic wrongs inhibit individual progress — but many, unlike Mary, don’t recognize that the fault isn’t entirely theirs. A new global study throws more weight to the idea: it shows that girls are more likely than boys to blame their academic failure on a personal lack of talent. Published on Wednesday in Science Advances, the study collected survey data from more than 500,000 individuals across 72 countries — particularly observing responses to the sentence “When I am failing, I am afraid that I might not have enough talent.”
Contrary what most people may expect, respondents from developed countries were shown to exhibit this bias more strongly than those from developing countries. Researchers hypothesize that the individualism in economically well-off countries could be a factor: where talent is seen as something some people are born with, and not something that can be cultivated. Authors of the study noted how “there exists a gender-brilliance stereotype that portrays men as more brilliant than women,” and this stereotype serves as a glass ceiling particularly in developed nations.
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The trope of the “male genius” may also be to blame; wherein men and boys are considered prodigies and are described in those terms far more than women and girls are — both in pop culture and in academic contexts. The study collected responses from the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment that analyzed how 15 year-olds learned math, reading, and science, to study differences in how men and women responded to the aforementioned question. As a result, it came up with a measure of the “magnitude of the stereotype associating talent with boys rather than girls.”
There are trickle-down effects to this perception. The more girls believed they lacked innate talent, the less confident they became, the less competition they enjoyed, and the less they participated in male-dominated professions. Information and Communication Technology, or ICT, is one such field where women’s scarce participation can be attributed to the gender confidence gap, according to the study.
We have known about this for a while, but the study throws light on global trends in how such gender stereotypes play out in different cultures. That this perception is greater in more gender-egalitarian countries can be attributed to the fact that “these countries have also developed more emancipative, individualistic, and progressive values that give a lot of importance to self-realization and self-expression,” the study notes. This, in turn, gives people room to fall back on old cultural stereotypes to organize their relationships with others and understand themselves better. Moreover, regional cultural differences play a role too. “[I]n Western countries, people tend to think that high intelligence is not universal but only granted to some (gifted) individuals, while in India or South Africa, for example, people believe that virtually everyone is born with the potential to become highly intelligent,” the study notes.
All this goes to show that “as countries develop, gender norms do not disappear, but reconfigure themselves,” according to study author Thomas Breda, from the Paris School of Economics.
“Success comes from learning through trial and error. If we deconstruct the concept of pure talent, we will also deconstruct the idea that girls are less naturally endowed with talent than boys,” Breda added.