Simon Says: the trouble with smart girls

Toby Simon, Director of the Hochberg Women’s Center

In a recent Psychology Today post, Heidi Grant Halvorson writes that smart and talented women rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they’ll have to overcome to be successful lies within.  She posits that women tend to judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but differently, than men judge their competencies.  No kidding!

In her article she suggests we go back to fifth grade to truly understand this phenomenon.  And apparently there are things we can do to rectify our current underestimated, underutilized, and even underpaid selves.

The psychologist Carol Dweck  conducted a series of studies in the 1980s, looking at how bright girls and boys in the fifth grade handled new, difficult and confusing material.

She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly new or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to say “I can’t do this”.  It turns out that the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses.  But bright boys saw the difficult material as a challenge, and became energized by it.  The challenge made them try harder, rather than give up.

As Halvorson writes: “What makes smart girls more vulnerable, and less confident, when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty–what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result.”

This makes a ton of sense.  Other studies have shown that boys learn how to negotiate at a young age and as a result become better at it than females when they are adults.  For example, when young boys are playing pick-up baseball in someone’s back yard, they will argue and argue over whether the runner was safe or out, whether the ball was fair or foul.  They argue and negotiate until there’s a resolution.  And so the game goes on.   Studies show that when girls play together and have a disagreement or argument, they don’t stick around to work it out.  They go home since they perceive arguing to be risky in that someone’s feelings will get hurt. This early behavior may be responsible for the difficulty that young women face when learning to negotiate any number of important issues.

Whether it’s negotiating or working on challenging problems, researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference:  more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

Like many things, we can look at gender and the feedback children get from their parents and teachers when they are young.   Girls, who develop self-control earlier than boys, are often praised for being “good”.   At school, girls are told that they are “so smart,” “so clever, “ or “ such a good student” giving the implication that smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

Boys receive very different feedback.  We know that getting young boys to sit still and pay attention is a challenge for parents and teachers.  Because of this, boys receive more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”)  Halvorson claims that girls and boys approach learning something new that is difficult in distinctly different ways:  girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

These early experiences stay with us. If bright girls are likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they will grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves–women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.  And they’ll be less likely to see themselves as leaders.

Sheryl Sandberg  and others have pointed out that successful women know that in any male-dominated profession, they often find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.  Sandberg claims that in order for change to happen women need to break down the barriers by striving for and achieving leadership roles and that by having more female voices in positions of power,  there will be more equitable opportunities created for both women and men.

And as it turns out,  many traits are malleable: intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, athleticism. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot.  So for all you smart girls out there,  now’s the time to embrace this reality:  you can always improve and reclaim the confidence to confront any challenge you avoided long ago!

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