The trouble with being a Bright Girl

Carla Axtman

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.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorsen:

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.

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    I think this has a great deal to do with the teacher in the classroom.

    I saw our daughter suffer at the hands of truly incompetent math teachers; her fifth grade teacher in Mac did not understand anything beyond arithmetic. It was excruciating to hear her talk about math. At Mac high, she had one truly inspiring math teacher, a fine woman who passed away far too early. She also had a math teacher who was really just a wrestling coach and got stuck teaching math; he called factorials "exponentials" - I don't know what he thought exponentials were. I taught our daughter both concepts. Somehow she survived the year, but I saw her interest in math and science wither on the vine.

    I teach physical chemistry and general chemistry at your alma mater; most of the time, the best students in my classes are female. We now do almost no traditional lecturing; our classes are almost entirely based on group learning in which a student really must focus on working through some rather complex material with his or her peers. We are reaching more students at a deeper level.

    I think that most of the revision in teaching math and science has centered around such an approach. Eric Mazur at Harvard has devoted himself to changing the landscape in physics pedagogy; Oregon-born Carl Weiman, Nobel laureate in physics, also devotes a third of his time to physics education. Neither of these two would dreamed of advocating solo work in the classroom.

    Team work, positive reinforcement of learning, and mastery of thinking at a higher level and being able to communicate that to one's peers are valued in this environment.

    In chemistry, most of the national leaders - for example, Marcy Hamby Townes, your fellow alum - in revitalizing undergraduate education are female; this says a great deal about the attitude of the traditional (once male-dominated but no longer) higher ed establishment toward improving undergraduate learning. It is still difficult for a young woman scientist to find a good female mentor at an R1 university but change is coming.

    I think your hidden talents are still there; the human brain is capable of learning as long as the body is alive.

    And I think your advice to Bright Girls is right on target. Thanks for sharing your personal story.

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    I read this article as well, and spent some time reflecting on my own experiences, and wondering about the messages I relay as a teacher and as a parent to our daughter and sons. In the trajectory of education and other endeavors, innate ability will get you to a certain point, but then at some point, a person needs the traits and practices of dealing with frustration, challenge and cognitive dissonance. If girls, and by extension women, internalize the message that "difficulty' equates with 'inability', then achievement is impacted. Great post, Carla!

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    Several years ago I read a book which believed a large number of females when they think like to see the end result before pursuing the process. If this is so, and I have no personal way of knowing, then math such as algebra goes against this type of thinking. It is more a step by step process where the next step reveals the next etc. until the answer. When I taught math I would try to help kids understand the difference between the two approaches and how it was all right to go step by step. Who knows. Makes some sense though.

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    There was a pretty good article a few years ago in NY Magazine about "effort praise" vs. "intelligence praise." It didn't really address the theory that girls receive more intelligence praise than boys, but it did mention a study that showed that girls were more negatively affected by that kind of praise. Interesting stuff, for sure.

    For me, I've always viewed my intellectual abilities as more innate... but, I'm not sure that has necessarily translated into making me give up on things easily. Probably my innate stubbornness is helpful in that regard... :)

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    Thanks. A completely unexpected essay and very thought provoking... particularly for a gay man who fit the intellectual and emotional criteria for a "very bright girl" when he was in fifth grade. I'm going to have to do some more processing on this but I very much appreciate the poke in my intellectual ribs.

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    "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."

    Not me -- I always knew I was smart but lazy.

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