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Gifted Girls - Many Gifted Girls, Few Eminent Women: Why?

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Are their talents being identified, encouraged, or ignored? This second in a series of articles dealing with gifted children focuses on possible reasons why giftedness in many girls fades as they grow older.


In early childhood and through the elementary school years, gifted boys and girls are equal in number. In adolescence, however, a marked turnaround occurs. At around age twelve gifted boys outnumber gifted girls, and by adulthood there are far more gifted men than gifted women. What happens to those young gifted girls? They don't just disappear; many gifted girls don't capitalize on their giftedness. Their academic achievement and other talents falter, and their gifts may become obscured on the way to womanhood. Research suggests that several factors converge to produce barriers to the achievement of gifted girls, causing the declining numbers of identifiable gifted girls as they grow up.

Right from the start - are gifted girls identified early enough?

Girls start school scoring ahead of boys and leave scoring behind. The identification of gifted children often begins in third grade, a system based on the belief that enrichment programs are best instituted at this age. This practice, however, penalizes young gifted girls who are often outstanding in early childhood. They talk, read, and count earlier than boys, and in the preschool years they score higher than boys on IQ tests. Girls are ready for formal schooling at an earlier age and they earn higher grades than boys in elementary school. In fact, Terman, a pioneer investigator in the field of giftedness, found that girls had an edge in academics over boys at every age level from 2 l/2 to 14 years. But by middle school the balance is reversed. Even as early as 3rd grade many gifted girls have gotten the message, effectively delivered at home and in school, that it is safer not to stand out for academic prowess, it's more acceptable for girls to be like their peers. Educators therefore need to take seriously the signs of developmental advancement in girls during the preschool years.

The slide in self-esteem

Many researchers have documented a gradual loss of self-esteem in girls as they progress through school. The slide for gifted girls starts early. Between grades 3 and 8 most gifted girls' self-concept declines significantly, and by adolescence many gifted girls suffer a marked lack of self-confidence. Eighth grade gifted girls report more negative self-regard and self-confidence in behavior, intellectual and school status, and popularity, than nongifted girls in the same grade level (Kline and Short, 1991; Klein, 1996). Conversely, characteristics such as perfectionism, hopelessness and discouragement rise with age. The authors hypothesize that these changes result from conflicts between the psychological needs of gifted females and society's gender-role expectations, as girls learn from their families, school and the media which behaviors are approved (Kline and Short, 1991). Some gifted girls come to believe that competition in academics should be avoided in order to preserve relationships even if it means underusing their talents.

Peer pressure - it's smart not to look too smart

As they move from girlhood into adolescence, many gifted girls often deny, camouflage, or abandon their talents and see disadvantages in being gifted. Adolescent girls are faced with choosing between the competing goals of popularity and academic achievement, and social relations often take precedence over intellectual interests. Since gifted girls are usually more socially adept than gifted boys, they pick up social cues and know how to fit in. In order to please others, gifted girls tend to play down their talents, often preferring to help others rather than tackle new learning. In a study with over 600 children, it was found that girls typically adapt to the ability level of their age-mates (Silverman, 1993). Gifted girls in 3rd through 9th grade choose not to leave their friends to join advanced classes. While boys generally don't associate with children less advanced than themselves, girls make an effort to blend in so that their own talents are inconspicuous.

The middle school years are the most critical period of all in the loss of talent among gifted females. At this time gifted girls discover that high achievement may cost them lack of acceptance by their peer group. Girls' groups reward conformity and may ostracize the girl who is a high achiever. In a study of almost 500 students that examined how gifted students are viewed by their peers, gifted boys were found to be the most popular, gifted girls the least. The girls were perceived as generally moody or sad, boys as funny and having a good sense of humor (Luftig, 1991). Girls with high grade-point averages were found to be more depressed, to have more psychosomatic problems, and to have lower self-esteem than boys with equivalent grade-point averages.

Giftedness and leadership qualities often go hand-in-hand. Leadership qualities are encouraged in boys, and gifted boys are described as leaders. In gifted girls, however, the same qualities are often described as "bossiness" and are discouraged. The message conveyed to girls is that it's okay if they are not assertive and do not assume leadership roles; it's more important to have friends.

The testing issue, the curriculum and course selection

Adolescent girls stop enrolling in gifted programs in grades l0, 11, and l2 (Read, 1991) and are at particular risk for academic underachievement in the areas of math and science. The prevalent myth in society that task proficiency is gender-related is reflected in the attitudes of gifted boys and girls about their abilities and also affects the types of courses they select. Gifted girls do not estimate their abilities as highly as gifted boys; girls' perception of their math abilities is low, while boys' perception of their language abilities is low. The message perpetuates the notion that it's okay if girls do not do well in math and science; they can be excellent readers and writers and leave science and math to the boys.

Studies that have examined gender differences in math abilities show mixed results. Although boys appear more active and able in advanced math and science, research in gender differences in basic math and spatial abilities shows no difference. Good math test performance depends on the number of math classes taken, and the avoidance of math classes by girls results in lower standardized test scores. However, the gap in math achievement test scores between males and females seems to be decreasing, and there is an increase in the number of girls in advanced math and science classes. In 1990 boys made up a higher percentage of pre-calculus, trigonometry, statistics and calculus classes, while in 1994 there was an equal or higher percentage of girls in all those classes except calculus. (AAUW, 1998).

Different test-taking styles

Despite the lessening of the gap between girls and boys on tests such as the College Board, the results of which determine eligibility for National Merit Scholarships, girls still do less well, according to research by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N. J. (Fairtest, 1998). College Board officials point to research showing that boys and girls are treated differently in classrooms as a possible reason for girls' lower scores. Standardized tests that entail short fill-in or multiple choice responses reward bold, quick answers and a willingness to take risks, characteristics more typical of boys than girls. Researchers such as Carol Gilligan have shown that females process and express knowledge differently and more subtly; they look for nuances and shades of gray.

Career choice

College and career selections are affected by high school course selection, creating a downward spiral effect (Siegle & Reis, 1998). Test results and course selection have important implications for performance on college entrance exams, programs for the gifted, and career selections. It follows that if gifted girls abandon their math and science pursuits for more "socially acceptable" activities, they run the risk of limiting their options for career development as well as their personal satisfaction in the workplace. Despite the catch-up occurring in math and science, there is still a gender gap in technology. One example: in 1996 girls made up only 17% of the high school students who took advanced placement computer science exams. Furthermore, the girls who do take computer classes tend to be in data entry, while boys are more likely to take advanced computer applications that can lead them to careers in technology. Although the disparity in career choices is gradually changing, women are still l7% of the nation's architects, 9% of the clergy, 8% of the engineers, 3% of the technicians, l0% of the dentists. Women represent 83% of the librarians, 86% of elementary school teachers, 88% of speech therapists, and 95% of kindergarten and preschool teachers (Sadker and Sadker, l994).

Conclusion - where do we go from here?

As consciousness is raised in regard to the loss of talent of gifted girls, programs are being instituted that aim to change attitudes as well as educational practices. Schools and families are tackling the problem in different ways. Some parents choose single gender schools for their daughters, hoping to encourage independence and the full use of talent. Some parents and schools choose to effect change by encouraging teacher training within coeducational environments and by creating special programs to foster gender equality for gifted boys and girls. Some schools establish single gender classes in math and science. As changes are implemented to erase the inequity in the education and upbringing of gifted girls, benefits will accrue to society as well as to individual women. As more gifted girls become gifted women they will learn that their aspirations can be unlimited and they will attain higher levels of self-esteem, occupational satisfaction, and financial resources.

Specific recommendations for parents and educators made by the The Gifted Development Center and other advocates for helping gifted girls overcome barriers to achievement include:

For Educators

  • Early identification; the best age for evaluating and identifying gifted girls is between 3 l/2 and 7. For some gifted girls early school entrance is beneficial.
  • Provide special programs that stimulate and challenge gifted girls.
  • Encourage selection of higher level math and science courses.
  • Multiple measures of ability and achievement should be used. Females still score lower on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the College Board Achievement Tests, the Graduate Record Examination and other examinations critical for college and graduate school admission. Most of these tests underpredict female performance and overpredict male performance.
  • Girls should be encouraged to "take credit" for their success and recognize their own talents.
  • Provide material to compensate for the lack of inclusion of women's accomplishments in literature or textbooks.

For parents

  • Foster friendships with gifted peers with similar interests. Provide role models of women in traditional and nontraditional careers who have successfully integrated multiple aspects of their lives.
  • Avoid sex-role stereotyping. Encourage criticism of biased depictions of girls and women in the media. As recently as January, 2000, for example, the Barbie personal computer for girls came loaded with a little more than half of the educational software on the companion computer for boys.
  • Encourage independence and risk-taking.
  • Keep in mind that the daughters of mothers who model independent, problem-solving behaviors and decision-making strategies are likely to be successful.
  • Recognize that many families have differing expectations for sons and daughters. Father involvement is important, since research indicates that fathers play an important role in the aspirations of their daughters.

References and Related Books

Gifted girls, remarkable women
C. Callahan & S. Reis, in:
Remarkable Women: Perspectives on Female Talent Development
K. Arnold, K. Noble, & R. Subotnik (Eds.)
Hampton Press 1996

Halpern, D. (1997) .Sex differences in intelligence: implications for education. American Psychologist, 52 (10) 1092-1102.

Klein, A. G. (1996) Self-concept and gifted girls: A cross sectional study of intellectually gifted females in grades 3, 5, 8. Roeper Review, 19 (1) 30-34.

Kline, B. & Short, E. (1991) Changes in emotional resilience: Gifted adolescent females. Roeper Review, 13 (3) 118-121.

Luftig, R. & Nichols, M. (1991) An assessment of the social status and perceived personality and school traits of gifted students by non-gifted.Roeper Review, 13 (3) 138-153.
Read, C. R. (1991) Gender distribution in programs for the gifted. Roeper Review, 13 (3) 188-193.

Siegle, D. and Reis, S. (1998) Gender differences in teacher and student perceptions of gifted students' ability and effort. Gifted Child Quarterly, 42 (1).