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Girls feel they must ‘play dumb’ to please boys

Dr MGirls feel the need to play down their intelligence to not intimidate boys, concludes research by a sociologist who spent three months amongst a class of school children.

The research, conducted by Dr Maria do Mar Pereira from the University of Warwick’s Department of Sociology, found that boys aged 14 had acquired the belief that girls their age should be less intelligent.

“There are very strong pressures in society that dictate what is a proper man and a proper woman”, argues Dr Pereira. “Young people try to adapt their behaviour according to these pressures to fit into society. One of the pressures is that young men must be more dominant – cleverer, stronger, taller, funnier – than young women, and that being in a relationship with a woman who is more intelligent will undermine their masculinity”.

To conduct the research Dr Pereira spent, with permission of the school and relevant authorities, three months as a student in a Year Eight class observing the everyday lives of school children. In order to gain as much insight as possible, she participated in all aspects of their day at school: she attended classes, did PE lessons, took exams, had lunch in the cafeteria, played in the playground and joined them in trips to shopping centres after school. As a result, she was able to observe aspects of young people’s interactions, feelings and behaviours that teachers and parents are often unable to access.

Based on these experiences, Dr Pereira says that “Our ideas of what constitutes a real man or woman are not natural; they are restrictive norms that are harmful to children of both genders. The belief that men have to be dominant over women makes boys feel constantly anxious and under pressure to prove their power – namely by fighting, drinking, sexually harassing, refusing to ask for help, and repressing their emotions.

“Girls feel they must downplay their own abilities, pretending to be less intelligent than they actually are, not speaking out against harassment, and withdrawing from hobbies, sports and activities that might seem ‘unfeminine’.”

According to Dr Pereira, “Trying to live up to these unreal ideas of masculinity and femininity leads to a range of problems; low self-esteem, bullying, physical and verbal violence, health problems and a tragic loss of potential in our young people. Therefore, we must promote ideas about gender which are less rigid, and recognise there are many ways of being a man and a woman”.

The book based on this research project, entitled Doing Gender in the Playground: The Negotiation of Gender and Sexuality in Schools, has just been named the Best Qualitative Book worldwide (2010-2014) by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry.

Whilst the initial work was conducted in a school in Lisbon, Dr Pereira asserts that the conclusions “strongly apply to young people in the UK and other western countries, and match the findings of previous studies conducted in British schools.

“In a globalised world, the ideas that young people in other countries have about gender are significantly influenced by British media, literature and popular culture. Therefore, it is vital that in the UK we have a more serious debate about the gender norms that we promote and their effects on young people at home and abroad”, argues Dr Pereira.

5 August 2014


Tom Frew: University of Warwick, International Press Officer


Phone: +44 (0)247 657 5910

Dr Maria do Mar Pereira: University of Warwick, Department of Sociology

Email: M dot D dot M dot Pereira at warwick dot ac dot uk