Girls as young as six believe that exceptional talent is a male trait, according to “heartbreaking” research into gender stereotypes.
They also shun activities and games for the “really, really smart” from the same age, believing their male counterparts are more likely to exhibit “brilliance”, the scientists said.
The stereotype being harboured from a young age is likely to reduce the chances of women pursuing prestigious careers, they wrote in the journal Science.
Study co-author Andrei Cimpian, a psychology professor at New York University, said: “Not only do we see that girls just starting out in school are absorbing some of society's stereotyped notions of brilliance, but these young girls are also choosing activities based on these stereotypes.
“This is heartbreaking.”
His previous research has found women are less likely to gain degrees in fields where genius is regarded as necessary for success, such as maths, physics and philosophy.
Not only is this bad for equality, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute has argued that narrowing the yawning salary gap between men and women could boost the UK economy by hundreds of billions of pounds.
The scientists behind the latest study acknowledged that further research needs to be carried out beyond the largely white, middle-class pool of 400 children.
“Nevertheless, the present results suggest a sobering conclusion: many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age,” the team, also from Princeton University and the University of Illinois, added.
“This stereotype begins to shape children's interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate.”