Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness" by Barbara A. Kerr, Ph.D.

by Kim Allen

This fascinating book takes a comprehensive look at gifted girls and how they end up fulfilling their potential as talented, gifted women. Barbara Kerr is one of only a few researchers over the decades who has seriously contemplated the lives, both inner and outer, of smart girls in American society. She asks tough questions about whether they are achieving at the level they are capable of, and proposes what at first seem like controversial explanations for their behavior.

Let's start with the facts. Gifted girls do not go as far as gifted boys in achieving status, high pay, and fame in society when they become women. And yet, the vast majority of them (more than average women) report happiness in life. They tend to suffer greater problems with self-esteem, downplaying of their abilities, and lowering of their expectations as they progress through school.

These are the facts. They can be interpreted and reacted to in various ways. Kerr performs her analysis from a position of assuming that gifted girls should achieve high-status positions like doctor, lawyer, professor, and CEO at the same rate as gifted boys. That is, children with the same high potential should reach the same high level of achievement in life.

My gut reaction in the first half of the book was to balk somewhat at this viewpoint, not because I think girls are "differently abled" or that they don't deserve high pay and high status. Rather, I think what the boys go through to achieve these high positions is not necessarily what we should be advocating for all people. The alpha-male rites of passage required to become an M.D., Ph.D, or J.D. are, in a word, awful. Instead of asking why women choose not to work 80-hour weeks, we could ask why men do choose this sort of life. Why are men so pathologically single-minded about pursuing these workaholic lifestyles? Maybe the gifted women are smart enough to see that there should be more balance to life.

But over the course of the book, I had to modify my original position. As I listened openly to what Kerr and others had found in their research, I had to agree that this is a much more complex problem than I originally thought (and I even thought it was complex already!), and that, in the end, encouraging more gifted women to undertake the rigors of getting professional degrees and working the high-status jobs is the right thing to do.

Kerr's thesis is worth mulling over. She notes first that gifted girls, like gifted people in general, are highly perceptive and have a good ability to adapt to their surroundings. Far from the stereotyped image of a socially obtuse geek, most gifted children are actually quite aware of their surroundings and the social happenings that go on around them. Some are extroverted themselves, and others are quieter, but nearly all share some smarts about how society works, even if they choose deliberately to be socially different.

The result of this, argues Kerr, is that gifted women actually adapt too well, i.e. to their own detriment. They are smart enough to perceive that society will not reward them for their brilliance-- they will always earn less than a comparable man, they will have to work harder for less recognition, and they will eventually reach a "glass ceiling" beyond which they cannot rise. This is not an entirely conscious process. Instead, it acts subtley over many years, during which their expectations inch lower and lower, and they simultaneously convince themselves that all is well and that they have chosen the lifestyle they end up in.

What a heady concept. In a single sweep, Kerr eliminates the popular notions that gifted women have all kinds of "syndromes" and other psychological problems ("The Imposter Effect", for example). She allows for the fact that women themselves are making the "choices" to be nurses instead of doctors, and paralegals instead of lawyers and judges, but still condemns society for heavily influencing these choices by working subconsciously on smart girls' and women's psyches. It makes sense. If you are a particularly perceptive person, as gifted women are, you would internalize over years of biased schooling (that favors boys) that you are less valued and hence deserve less.

(Ironically, average women probably feel less of this effect because they are less perceptive. The facts from Kerr's research show that gifted women are hurt more than average women by societal bias-- that is, they differ more from gifted men than average women do from average men in terms of educational and career achievement).

Whether you agree completely with the notion that gifted women have adapted themselves into mediocrity, you can appreciate that this is a complex problem of both individual choice and societal influence. And you can become converted to Kerr's notion that we should not accept a gifted woman's stated "happiness" with her life as a soccer mom, not because women shouldn't have the choice to become soccer moms, but because it may not have been a truly free choice.

Kerr makes an eloquent argument that we, as a society, have an obligation to develop the potential of our most brilliant members. Otherwise, we are wasting a valuable resource. And currently, we are wasting about 50% of our best and brightest by not calling on them in class in elementary school, by not properly mentoring them in college, and by not promoting them in their careers. And so they "choose" to pursue other interests that could also be done by people who aren't gifted. Viewed this way, it is unconscionable. This is not elitism, this is honoring the talents that we possess within our citizens.

By the way, it is interesting how Kerr came to this field of research. She herself attended a program for the gifted in St. Louis as a child in the 50's. Her class, roughly divided between boys and girls, was together from 6th to 12th grade in accelerated classes. Later, they had 10- and 20-year reunions. At the 10th, several of the women noticed that the women had significantly lower achievement than the men, and wanted her, as a psychologist, to study why. She got intrigued, dropped her current line of research, and took up the study of gifted girls and women. Her first book, Smart Girls, Gifted Women, was written after this 10-year reunion. This new book came after the 20th reunion, when she gathered more data from her classmates' evolving lives.

She has also gone on to do many other studies of gifted girls, including desigining and running some programs for these kids, and supplying counseling for gifted girls and women. She is aware that times have changed since the 50s, and that society is less sexist than it was then, but still, the achievement differences persist. Attitudes and self-critiques by gifted girls are less changed than you might think. She has even looked at the factor of race among gifted girls, pointing out the unique influences of certain minority cultural concepts on girls' achievements. She joins a very small group of researchers who have ever cared enough to study what goes on in smart girls' heads.

The book is less well-written than I hoped, or than I perhaps implied in this review. It seems somewhat disjointed, with chapters on eminent women and other people's research inserted awkwardly. I wished she had done more of the justification of her stance in the early parts of the book, so I had spent less time reacting to that before realizing the depth of the issues. It was almost as if Kerr is so immersed in her work and her viewpoint that she didn't realize that others-- even those with some knowledge of the topic, like me-- need to be brought up to speed on all the facets of this area of research.

But overall, I found the book fascinating. And I think more people should be exposed to the challenges facing gifted girls in growing up in a society that wastes their brilliance. Thus, it gets a "strong +." Read this book!

[As a personal aside, I was a gifted girl, and participated in some gifted programs at school. I went on to take honors classes, attend a good university, and attain a Ph.D. in physics. I then left scientific research, however, because I was annoyed with the lifestyle and bored with the tedium of the lab. I also had rather poor mentoring in college and grad school. I would call myself "happy" in my current life as a market analyst and technical/strategic consultant. But did I cop out? Was I one of Kerr's "fallen" gifted women who lowered her expectations when faced with competing in a world where men are far more highly rewarded (physics research)? I have to think about that. If you are a smart woman, this book is sure to make you think.]

Copyright © 2004 by Kim Allen

02/05/06 at 1:10