International Day of the Girl: How Gender Stereotypes Make Some Boys Believe They're Smarter—By Fourth Grade

Girls may run the world, but they can't outrun gender misperceptions — and it starts when they're young.

Bias against girls is well-established as early as the fourth grade, according to survey data released late Tuesday by Save the Children. How well established? More than a third of 9- and 10-year-old boys said they believe boys are smarter than girls, the survey showed.

The results raise complicated questions about how kids form their gender biases, but there's one easy answer: they get them from us.

Related: Why Don't Girls Play With Boys? Kids at Sweden's Gender-Neutral Schools Are Less Likely to Stereotype

Experts say that gender perception starts as early as 3 years old and gets strengthened when students begin school, where they learn about figures like Albert Einstein, see that all U.S. presidents have been male, or focus only on professional, male-dominated sports.

Whether or not teachers realize it, men are presented as the ideal, and students of all genders start to believe it.

"What they always see is that prototypical Einstein image," Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, tells Newsweek. "So when you ask kids, 'Who can be a scientist? Who can be a genius? Who's the smartest in their school?' they pick men and boys."

That concept gets reinforced at home. Brown says most parents are probably not specifically telling their daughters that girls aren't as smart as boys, but they are more likely to ask girls if they have questions on their homework. That, in turn, sends a subtle message to girls that they appear to need help.

Everything snowballs from there.

An American Psychological Association analysis released in 2014 found that girls get higher grades than boys in all subjects. But even when girls perform well academically, they tend to come away with the belief that it's because they're studying hard. Boys, on the other hand, seem naturally smart. Eventually that translates into a gender gap in middle school, high school and college.

"Girls seem to disengage from things they think require high levels of innate intelligence," Brown says. "Even girls making really high grades start to self-select into lower-level classes."

That could explain why the Save the Children poll found that 22 percent of girls said they think girls need less school than boys. It could also be linked to the underrepresentation of women in fields like science, technology, engineering and math. For example, the Department of Labor says 47 percent of American workers are female, but only 11 percent of civil engineers are women.

Even as adults, people's brains pick up on those patterns and judge the various genders, as May Ling Halim, an assistant professor at California State University Long Beach, tells Newsweek. But the cycle doesn't have to continue. 

Halim, an expert in child and adolescent development, says parents can point out stereotypes as soon as kids encounter them and control the narrative. When a child watches Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty get rescued by a prince, a mom can remind her that girls are powerful, too—or, better yet, show the girl movies with female main characters. When students learn about Einstein before Marie Curie, a dad can confront sexism.

"[Parents can say] all of these leaders have been men, but there are other reasons—it's not just because they're naturally smarter or more capable," Halim says. "Kids are pretty sensitive, so they can see in their interactions around them just how men and women are treated."

Any change, she adds, has "got to come from the broader culture around the kids."