Those who've known me since I was a girl describe the younger version of me as someone whose brain was always working, always in motion. The "smart girl". The girl who constantly knew the answers. A "very bright girl". This was not necessarily the way I saw myself. I knew I had a knack for words and a passion for certain areas of study that came easy to me. But I constantly doubted my ability in math and sometimes science. It wasn't that it was difficult, it's just that it wasn't easy. I never quite figured out how to suspend the fear of failure in those areas and power through it.
It seems that I'm not the only one.
Chances are good that if you are a successful professional today, you were a pretty bright fifth grade girl. My graduate advisor, psychologist Carol Dweck (author of "Mindset") 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 foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls' IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.
Why does this happen? 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.
The author goes on to talk about how girls tend to believe that their intellectual abilities are innate, while boys tend to believe that smarts are achieved through hard work and practice. Part of the origin of these beliefs, according to this piece, stems from the different way that males and females receive feedback in school and at home. Bright Girls are "clever", "smart" and "good students". For me, this was a way to tell me that I had qualities that other children couldn't have and they couldn't be transferred to them. They were my own--and affixed only to those certain areas where I was naturally gifted.
These beliefs carry on into adulthood, with many Bright Girls believing that their innate, unchangeable intellectuality can't be transferred to areas where they've historically not had it easy. They tend to be hard on themselves...much too hard, concluding that they can't succeed and give up prematurely.
With the caveat that this doesn't apply to all Bright Girls, this has applied to me and other women that I know. Even now, I have to pluck up extra courage on a regular basis to go after something that doesn't come naturally. There are a lot of years out there where I've wasted time dithering over these worries. There's something empowering about understanding these concepts, acknowledging them and shoving them out of the way.
So for all you Bright Girls out there: you can do it. Don't give up. Let your nose meet that grindstone and power through it. You're so much more than the sum total of the stuff of your natural talents.