Why Smart Girls Abandon Their Dreams and How to Stop ItEminent women are those who had an extraordinary amount of time alone as children.
Smart girls start with big dreams. Many later abandon or compromise, especially if they come from backgrounds of privilege.
Dr. Barbara Kerr, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has been tracking one gifted cohort for decades. She has also set up counseling labs to study and guide creative teens, observing changes over time.
Her professional interest in “smart girls” began at her high school ten-year reunion. A child of the 1950s Sputnik generation, she was tapped at age nine to attend a special school for smart kids. The teacher said they were getting the best education in the nation; it was their job to keep the Chinese and the Russians from taking over the free world.
Only one other girl from her tough St. Louis neighborhood was in the program. Mary was tall, strong and beautiful like an Amazon. And mean. Kerr found it scary to wait with her at the bus stop every morning. The other students were boys, plus a smattering of girls from other parts of the city. They all had big dreams.
Kerr turned down a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr PA to attend the University of Missouri, which was coed and closer to home. She got a PhD there in counseling psychology because someone said she was good at it. Married to a man in the same field, they joined the University of Nebraska faculty in 1979.
Going to her smart kids class reunion was intimidating. “I was afraid all my former classmates might be astronauts,” she said. Most of the men were on accelerated, linear career paths in law or medicine or directing the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
The women were a different story. Ten years out of high school, half the women were homemakers and the other half in traditional women’s careers such as teaching or nursing. “The girls who had such big dreams for themselves no longer had them,” she said.
Big Mary suddenly towered over her at the reunion like a shadow, tall and beautiful as ever. “So, Kerr, you’re a psychologist now,” Mary said. She suggested that Kerr study women. “Find out why we’re not the leaders of tomorrow.”
A career focus
Back in Nebraska, Kerr took Mary’s advice to study adolescent girls of the 1980s: their values, aspirations, relationships and life decisions. She also surveyed the women in her high school class.
She’s still following them at 10-year intervals, with striking results:
• 10 years after graduation: At age 29 most were satisfied with their lives, claiming to be no different from other women. The articulateness of their letters belied that claim. Kerr published her findings as Smart Girls, Gifted Women in 1985.
• 20 years out: At 39 their lives were changing. Some were in the midst of divorce. Many said they felt overwhelmed by teenage children, aging parents and part-time jobs. Her Smart Girls Two came out in 1994, which she completely revised in 1997 as Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women and Giftedness.
• 30 years out: “At 49 they were dazzling. They had finally fulfilled the dreams of their youth, in more roundabout ways,” she said.
• 40 years out. At 59 they were nowhere near ready to retire; they’d only just started to spread their wings. Kerr’s next revision of Smart Girls is in progress. Her many other publications along the way include Smart Boys: Talent, Manhood, and the Search for Meaning (2001).
In the late 1950s, Kerr and her classmates were selected on the basis of Stanford-Binet IQ test scores, which defined “gifted” for half a century. IQ scores favored the white middle class and, at the upper end, boys.
Definitions broadened in the 1980s to include other talents such as artistic creativity, writing, leadership and invention. Concepts of “gifted” gave way to “gifted and talented” as the concept of multiple intelligences emerged.
Revisions made assessment tools less culture-specific, but more recently standardized testing under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has pushed in the opposite direction.
Smart girls aren’t all alike and can’t be summed up in a number. No assessment tool successfully identifies them all.
They may show:
“While research has broadened a great deal, it’s been a mixed blessing for women,” Kerr said. Research results have been used to push smart girls away from the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Talent search programs in the 1980s published data showing a predominance of boys among those testing in the 99th percentile or above in mathematics. The popular media picked this up to say that boys are better at math. Girls who internalized this message became less likely to perform to their potential.
It took two decades of research to overturn the idea of hereditary male superiority at mathematics. Dr. Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin studied math achievement across countries and cultures, finding that the countries with the most gender equity on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (such as Iceland, Thailand and the United Kingdom) had as many girls as boys doing very well in math.
Asian American girls scored as high as Asian American boys. The supposed gender difference among white Americans was cultural, not biological. With cultural change, the American math gender gap finally closed. NCLB results show girls testing as high in math as boys.
Obsessed with gender differences, researchers turned to spatial and visual comparisons and differences in brain structure. Again the popular media has misinterpreted and over-generalized, always to the disadvantage of women.
“Females have always outscored males in verbal tests. Nobody ever tells men they shouldn’t become playwrights or journalists because they don’t have the right genes,” she said. “The belief that men are from Mars and women are from Venus lets all of us off the hook from doing the hard work of equity.”
To follow a dream
Studying talented young women in STEM fields, Kerr explored what factors predict whether which women persist instead of abandoning their dreams.
• A top predictor of persistence is holding career goals at least equal in significance to relationship goals.
• The further from privilege the women start out at (provided they had some access to opportunities), the more likely they are to persist in their career goals. Upper middle-class white women have more disappointing careers than others who showed similar promise.
Women drop out of college or grad school less often than 20 years ago. The biggest loss is after completing an advanced degree, wasting a huge investment. “You have to wonder what cultural messages these girls are getting,” she said.
Lower middle-class girls tend to keep going, knowing that their families sacrificed to send them to college. Latinas say their boyfriends are proud of them. Daughters of single moms want to be successful for mom.
• Children who are compliant and afraid to be alone are at greater risk of dropping out later on. “The precursors to women compromising their goals at age 25 are there at age 11,” she said. Girls need encouragement to step away from the crowd and challenge themselves.
Millennials are different
Today’s girls and young women are very different from those in the 1950s. Puberty starts earlier, with the average age of first menstruation at 16+ in 1860, 14+ in 1920, 13 in 1950 and about 12 today, Kerr said.
Today more women than men graduate from college. Women are marrying later, and one in four U.S. babies is born to an unmarried mother. As many women as men are in the American paid workforce, many lacking adequate healthcare or childcare. Today, for the first time in history, women are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American households. Women are working harder and longer, and their health is suffering.
Millennial girls are a whole new generation. They’re more:
1. Wired. They have much more technical competence than their seniors. For bright girls this is mostly good; when they’re bored in school, they can go online at home and learn. They’re connected and make extensive use of social media. But external input can crowd out reflection and creativity.
2. Overscheduled and overworked. Middle-class girls and above have a full schedule of activities. Less affluent girls spend more time taking care of younger siblings and working for pay. After-school jobs are common. Smart girls in all socioeconomic classes have too little solitude and too little time for unstructured play. “Eminent women are those who had an extraordinary amount of time alone as children,” she said.
3. Pressured to be popular. “Gifted girls are too welladjusted for their own good,” Kerr said. They’re under tremendous pressure to be sociable and nice. “Eminent women tend to be slightly disagreeable. They have thorns. That’s what protects their talent.” Despite having confidence in many areas, girls today have difficulty with criticism. Many are medicated for depression or ADHA. They have high academic self-esteem but lower physical self-esteem than those of 30 years ago.
4. Concerned with media images. These wired, connected young women are heavily influenced by media images. Some show women as successful. Others feature sexy, greedy Paris Hilton types who compete with other women.
Images of women’s bodies are more prominent and insidious than in the past. Today’s typical model is much thinner than in 1980. Bright girls are more likely to have eating disorders; they’re self-disciplined perfectionists and know how to research calories.
In summary, today’s smart girls are likely to:
The path to fulfilling smart girls’ talents hasn’t changed.
Eminent women’s biographies show a consistent pattern:
At every university where she has taught—Nebraska, Iowa, Arizona State and now Kansas—Kerr has founded labs to research and guide talented teens.
Her current job as director of the Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States (CLEOS) identifies students whose profiles at age 16 match those of leading innovators when they were that age, then offers guidance and assistance in setting their goals.
If we want smart girls to become not just experts but innovators, we need to encourage their taking on challenges, letting go of perfectionism and bouncing back from mistakes. We need to promote time alone and deemphasize the need to be liked. We need to help them learn that their bodies are not their identities.
Let’s encourage smart girls to follow their dreams and become the innovative leaders of tomorrow.
Kerr keynoted the University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln in October 2011.
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2011, December). Why Smart Girls Abandon Their Dreams and How to Stop It. Women in Higher Education, 20(12), p. 7-8.