One of the unintended consequences of the digital era is that it leaves a historically unprecedented pile of evidence of our innermost thoughts and concerns. Google’s simple search bar has turned into a dumping ground for the questions that we may be afraid to ask out loud, which is why it’s a perfect place to look and see if modern parents, who are often careful to claim publicly that they treat male and female children equally, are privately exerting different expectations and pressures based on gender.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes for the New York Times on his research looking at the different concerns that parents bring to Google when it comes to sons and daughters. He finds, unsurprisingly, that despite a decade-plus of “girl power” cheerleading, parents still believe that what matters about sons is their intelligence and what matters about girls is their looks.
While girls are 11 percent more likely, in the real world, to be in gifted programs, parents are way more likely to look at their sons and feel the soaring hope that they detect signs of burgeoning genius. Stephens-Davidowitz found that for every 10 Google queries asking, “Is my daughter gifted?” there were 25 asking, “Is my son gifted?” Parents were way more likely to ask about sons being geniuses or intelligent than they were about daughters. But the attention paid to boys’ brains over girls’ showed up on the other side of the spectrum, too, with worried parents 52 percent more likely to ask if sons were “stupid” than daughters and 46 percent more likely to ask if sons were “behind” than daughters.
It’s not that daughters are ignored in the world of Google inquiries, however. Shift the focus to the area directly under the actual brain and suddenly interest in daughters surges. Boys are slightly more likely to be overweight than girls, but girls’ weight concerned parents a lot more. For every 10 inquiries about sons being overweight, there were 17 about daughters. Indeed, there’s a lot of fear that the daughters of America are not cutting it in the looks department. There were three times as many inquiries about whether a daughter is “ugly” than for a son. And yes, it’s hard to understand why parents would think Google knows the answer.
While it’s tempting to write off the entirety of this survey as yet another example of how parents fail children by aggressively instilling sexism from an early age, the picture is a bit more complicated than that. Plenty of parents are actively worried about how well the children they’re raising will do when released from the nest into the real world. And parents do have reason to believe that women pay a much higher penalty for being overweight or considered unattractive than men do. And that’s just in the workplace. Parents are also generally interested in raising children that are social and romantic successes, and while that’s harder for social scientists to research, just living in the world should tell us that women’s looks and weight matter more than men’s. Needless to say, getting married matters way more for a woman to be considered a success than for a man, and parents aren’t immune to feeling that pressure. Even if a parent feels guilty about holding daughters to a higher standard in the looks department, fears that a daughter will be treated poorly as an adult if she’s heavy or considered homely likely override the desire to be fair. It’s not cool giving your daughter a complex about her looks, but that parents get a little aggressive in this department is somewhat understandable.
Of course, the tendency to see every utterance that comes out of a boy’s mouth as indicative of his future genius while treating the same behavior from girls with indifference is just plain old sexism that can’t be excused in any way. This isn’t the bad old days where a woman’s intelligence had little bearing on her future success, and in fact, women outnumber men on college campuses. Parents, your early talking girl is just as likely to be a burgeoning Einstein as your boy is. No need to hold back in discussing your daughter’s intelligence with the search bar on Google.