Saturday, March 05, 2011

Bright Girls Blues

A HuffPo post argues that bright girls take their brightness as an innate talent, not something one has to work on, and that this is what keeps them and bright women back from achieving:
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.
Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: 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.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their "goodness." When we do well in school, we are told that we are "so smart," "so clever, " or "such a good student." This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't.
Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot 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.") The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, 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.
We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because Bright Girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they 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.
I'm not sure what to think about this theory. It rings partly true, but then I start hearing all those anti-feminist arguments in my head about how girls just work away like little ants while boys are too creative and individualistic to do so, and how that is the reason why girls do better at school. Which is another theory in search of real evidence, I guess.

When I was about fifteen, my body met the front of a van in a snow storm and got tossed quite a long distance into the air. I missed school for several weeks, what with being in the hospital and such, and when I got back the math class had long (sibilant?) Ss all over the board. I had no idea what the teacher was on about, and I failed the next examination. Which was about integration. Which was covered when I was elsewhere.

This would have provided a good opportunity for the quoted theory to kick in, and indeed I do remember thinking that I was stupid, not somehow knowing about integration. But then I learned about catch-up work. Still, the stage when I really learned hard work at school was in the graduate program. Perhaps that was because everyone there had to work hard?

These are all scattered thoughts of no great importance, and they don't even get to the question of how certain types of groups are deemed to own their talents in some innate sense as a way to put those talents down. For instance, nurturing is assumed to be an innate characteristic in women, not something you have to work to learn. That allows us not to pay that much for nurturing occupations.