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The “Disappearing Intelligence” of Girls & How to Protect Your Daughter

The “Disappearing Intelligence” of Girls & How to Protect Your Daughter


By Dr. Judy Flury


Consider this: The number of gifted girls and boys in elementary school is approximately equal. However, around age 11, a major change occurs and gifted boys begin to outnumber gifted girls.  This imbalance of gifted boys to gifted girls then steadily grows during the middle and high school years, and by adulthood, gifted men far outnumber gifted women.


How can this be?  Surely the girls who are gifted in elementary school don’t just suddenly lose their mental prowess once puberty strikes.  So what happens?


The fact is, several different things are going on, but I’m going to discuss just the main cause here today.


The main reason for this perplexing decline in gifted girls’ performance is that as they reach the middle school years, gifted girls begin to purposely mask their intellectual ability.  (For a thorough discussion, see the article So Many Gifted Girls, So Few Prominent Women by Dr. Anita Guarian.)


Why on earth would they do that, you ask?  The reality is, girls come to discover that, as opposed to when they were in elementary school, much of society tends to look down on girls for “showing their smarts”.  Once they realize this, many gifted girls tend to go to great lengths to purposely ignore their intellectual ability, deny that they’re gifted at all, and purposely “dumb themselves down.”


Let’s take a closer look at what’s behind this:


* This is the age (traditionally 12-ish, and sadly, much younger today) when girls begin to see boys as something other than full of cooties, and instead become interested in them romantically (or think that they should be, given what is is fed to them mercilessly through T.V. and in school every day.)  Sensing that boys prefer to be the dominant, capable, and smart one in a romantic relationship, girls quickly learn to mask their intelligence so as not to intimidate potential boyfriends. (Come on, you’ve done this from time to time, haven’t you moms?  Most girls/women have.  And not just the gifted among us, either.)


* Fact: Common sense says that boasting about one’s own superior talents is not the way to fit in and win friends -- realizing this is just a part of everyday social skills.  

*Fact: Research shows that girls tend to be more socially adept than boys, and are more aware of social cues given off by others.


* Result: Because they are more socially aware, girls are thus more apt to pick up on those cues that tell us that the best way to get along with others is to fit in, instead of standing out.  As a result, we see that gifted girls in middle and high school often choose not to leave their friends of average intelligence behind in order to take advanced courses; while conversely, boys tend not to associate with those less advanced than themselves.


* Fact: Giftedness and leadership traits often tend to go together.  Not a scientific fact, but a "fact of life”:  Leadership traits such as assertiveness, self-assuredness, taking charge, etc. are encouraged and revered in men, while the same traits are often seen as bossiness or bitchiness in women.


The clear message to gifted girls, then, is that in order to get along with others and be seen as “nice”, it’s best to not act upon any natural leadership traits, but to instead squelch them if they want to be liked by others.


So what we’ve seen is that when girls reach the middle school years (and, alas, much earlier than that these days - I’d say by the 1st grade) - they begin to get the message from society that girls are prized for how pretty and sexy they are, while boys are prized for how smart they are and what they can achieve.

Girls therefore begin to pay much more attention to trying to look physically attractive for others, instead of pursuing their talents (and woe is the girl who is not overly blessed in the looks department.)


I could go on, but you get the picture.


Lest you think that this only occurs in academic environments, or just in gifted girls, I’ve seen this same thing time and time again in my young female students over 31 years of teaching at my martial art center. 


It’s sad, really, to see the girls who start out performing with just as much (and often more) power and intensity than the boys in Taekwondo suddenly start to pull back and begin performing far below their ability, so that they don’t “show up” the boys that they’ve started to develop an interest in, or so that they don’t appear “unfeminine.”  Formerly outstanding, strong, promising young martial artists become shadows of their former, formidable selves.


Seems a little bleak for girls, doesn’t it?  But as a parent, there are some things you can do to help your daughter avoid this tendency to thwart her potential:


1. If your daughter does show special talent or giftedness in a certain area, give her every opportunity to develop friendships with girls who have the same talents. This way she'll see that she can still be well-liked while also making the most of her intellect -- she doesn't have to choose one or the other.


2. Expose her to female role models who have achieved eminent positions based on their skills, intelligence, or aptitudes - not their looks.  (Beauty pageant queens don't qualify!  That beauty will fade -- then what?  And yes, I know -- beautiful women can be highly intelligent.  That's not the point.  The point is to admire based on the intelligence factor, or skills factor, or contribution factor -- not the beauty factor, or thin-ness factor, or any other meaningless factor. )


3. Don't praise your daughter's looks any more than you would your son's looks.  Praise, instead, her efforts and her accomplishments, just like you do with your son.  This will give her the message that she’s more than her looks.


4. Discuss these issues with her, so that she becomes aware of the subtle pressures towards mediocrity for girls and will thus be less likely to succumb to it.  (Be alert for examples such as the “Barbie” personal computer for girls that comes loaded with half of the educational software as the comparable computer for boys. Examples abound if you pay attention.)



So, what do you think?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Do you have any other pointers to help girls fulfill their potential and not sabotage their own intellectual and leadership prowess once they become aware of society’s pressures to conform what’s considered “feminine”? 


If so, speak up by sending me an e-mail at grand prairie, with “Girl Article” as the subject line.  I’ll share interesting points of view and tips from readers in a future blog post!




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