Boys Smarter Than Girls? – An Interview With Professor Andrei Cimpian About Gender Stereotypes

Math is for boys and reading is for girls, and similar assumptions in the same vein: these are stereotypes that are created at an early age. We owe our thanks to individuals such as Professor Andrei Cimpian who are helping to break such patterns of thinking and contribute towards betterment in society. Professor Cimpian has conducted detailed studies into a serious issue that is faced by the society we live in.

Who are smarter? Boys or girls?


First of all professor, at what age does this kind of thinking begin to set in?

Children learn gender stereotypes surprisingly early. For example, stereotypes that associate math with boys and reading with girls have been found in young elementary-school children. In some of our own work, we have found that children begin to associate being „really, really smart“ with boys over girls around the age of 6 – which, again, is quite early. 


To what degree are parents responsible for putting their offspring into boxes? 

I don’t think we can blame just parents. Parents are members of a broader culture that promotes the message that men’s intellectual abilities are superior to women’s and that men are better suited for math and science than women are. When parents behave around children in ways that might suggest that they have higher expectations of boys‘ aptitude for scientific pursuits (for example, using more number words when playing with boys, or providing more explanations for boys when visiting museums), they are simply acting as members of their culture.

Other adults behave in similar ways – teachers, for example, tend to attribute boys‘ success to their smarts and girls‘ success to their hard work and diligence. So I think, ultimately, we need to change the conversation around gender as a society; without changes at this level, interventions on particular groups of children or parents will be less effective because they will often be undermined by the messages that children encounter in the world outside the lab or school. 


Not just the less developed societies, but even in the so-called developed countries, there are many professions where women are under-represented. Would you please tell us more about this, and especially your personal views?

In many industrialized countries, such as those in Europe and North America, women are underrepresented in science- and technology-related fields. But they are underrepresented in fields beyond those as well – for example, in fields such as philosophy or music composition. In these fields, too, there are many more men than women who obtain advanced degrees, which is somewhat puzzling.

What do the fields in which women are underrepresented have in common? They seem so very different on the surface. My collaborators and I have proposed that one feature that may be shared by many of the fields that have gender gaps is that their members believe success in their field depends on being particularly brilliant – on having a lot of „raw“ (innate) intellectual ability.

Because of the stereotypes that portray women as being less brilliant than men, women may encounter bias and discrimination in these fields, which in turn makes it harder for them to succeed. Also, to the extent that women internalize these stereotypes, they may think that careers in these fields are „not for them“ and decide to pursue other types of work.

These beliefs about brilliance are not the only thing that matters, of course, and many other researchers have investigated these issues and have found other important obstacles in the way of women’s success in science. 


Please do tell us more about your research.

My colleagues and I are interested in explaining the problem of women’s underrepresentation in some of the most prestigious careers in our society — such as those in science and technology. As I mentioned above, we proposed that gender gaps may be particularly large in fields whose members believe one needs to be brilliant to succeed. The reason for this is that our society associates men, but not women, with brilliance.

The findings of a study of over 1,800 American academics from across 30 different fields (natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, etc.) were consistent with this proposal. That is, we found that women were indeed less likely to obtain PhDs in fields that idolize brilliance and genius.

In fact, this hypothesis was better able to explain the magnitude of gender gaps across fields than several other popular explanations (such as the idea that women prefer fields in which you can work fewer hours or more flexible hours).

This research suggests it is important to be aware of the messages we send to young people about how one becomes successful in a field or career – and this applies to parents and teachers talking with children as well.

If we all try to avoid labeling and categorizing others based on their perceived intellectual gifts, and instead emphasize what can be achieved with sustained effort and the right strategies, we may create an atmosphere that is equally encouraging of men and women, boys and girls. 


Some studies claim that the construction of men’s and women’s brains is different and that men are more suited to science and women more suited for languages, for example. Please tell us about your views on this.

There is no compelling scientific evidence that men’s brains are somehow better suited for science than women’s brains – and the same goes for the claim that women are better at languages. One easy way to tell that these claims are false is to look at the vast differences that exist between countries in how well women do in math and science; if these gender gaps were biological in nature (rather than being a product of culture), you should see them consistently across cultures, yet you do not. Instead, there is huge variability from country to country, from culture to culture. 


Now the theory related to my previous question may be debunked when for example we observe almost an equal number of women working as IT engineers in the tech industry in a less developed country such as India. Please tell us about your views on this. 

Yes, as I mentioned in my preceding answer, the cross-cultural differences clearly contradict a biological account of women’s underrepresentation in science and technology. 


Other research has also concluded that women have 8 percent more grey matter than men. Is this, again a bias against one gender versus the other or is it a fact? 

I’m not familiar with the evidence for this particular claim, but I will reiterate that there is no good evidence that men’s and women’s brains differ in ways that would matter for their ability to succeed in science. 


Not just gender bias in studies but an overall bias in favour of boys. Does this lead to over-confident men in society who could do more good if they behaved more productively or reasonably? 

Yes, men are stereotyped in other ways that might make it easier for them to succeed. Across cultures, they are seen as more competent, decisive, and rational than women, and as better leaders. Unfortunately, these are obstacles that women have to overcome as well if they want to rise to the top in male-dominated professions such as those in science and technology. 


Please tell us about your growing up years, professor. Who were the individuals who contributed towards your becoming such a well read individual and an achiever? 

I grew up in Romania, and all my relatives (including my parents) are still there. I grew up surrounded by books – that probably made a difference. Also, I was lucky that my parents encouraged me to do well in school but also allowed me the freedom to pursue whatever sort of career I was interested in. 


What are your interests outside of work? 

I work a lot. J But when I’m not on my laptop, I like to watch TV to unwind, and I’m also a fan of sci-fi in all forms (short stories, novels, movies). 


Our readership comprises mainly young adults in different parts of the world who look up to people such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

First, give some serious thought to what you want out of your life – what do you want to accomplish 10, 20, 30 years down the line? Once you’ve figured that out (and it’s not easy), figure out how you’re going to get there – specifically. What concrete steps do you need to take to achieve these long-term goals?

Keep in mind that very few truly worthwhile things in life come easy, so you can anticipate having to work very hard for many years to achieve your goals – but that’s totally fine because these goals are (hopefully) something that gives your life meaning. And keep in mind that there will be many setbacks along the way – it’s just an unavoidable part of life. You need to learn what you can from them, and move on.

More info on Professor Cimpian is available here. Read more about typical stereotypes: boys vs girls here.

Photo: Archive of Professor Cimpian

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