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Should We Treat Gifted Boys Any Differently From Gifted Girls?

New research suggests that setting gender aside helps teachers increase opportunity for precocious students.
These kids are tired of the gender gap in engineering and computer science. (Photo: Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

These kids are tired of the gender gap in engineering and computer science. (Photo: Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

“Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up,” Sarah Silverman enjoins us. “I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would have never occurred to them they couldn’t.” I agree. But what should we tell girls? Our national message to girls lately has been that they can be anything—especially if that anything is a career in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). I’ve brought that message to our house: My kids have all participated in the Hour of Code, an international program to promote computer sciences. When my daughter expressed an interest in meteorology, we bought a bunch of books and documentaries about weather.

Now, a 2015 paper, “Gender Differences in Gifted Children,” indicates Silverman might be right, and offers suggestions on what we should be telling our girls instead.

Even when boys and girls both test well, girls have a lower self-concept than boys in STEM subjects. 

The nub of the findings, as reported by lead researchers Joan Freeman and Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal, is as follows: Among gifted children, the best approach to focus on “boys and girls as ... individuals ... rather than overly emphasiz[ing] male-female dualities.”

I work in technology and I’m acutely aware that it is an old boys’ club. Or maybe more accurately a young boys club. I’m a young white male and I look around and see lots of young white men in leadership. Fortunately, I’ve also met Deidre Paknard, CEO of Workboard, a provider of productivity management tools for managers. Paknard is passionate about encouraging women in technology careers. I interviewed her last year on how to raise daughters to be leaders. She told me:

It’s important that we make sure girls learn to play with boys in elementary school and that they don’t learn how to defer their intellect and competency to those same boys once they’re in middle and high school. As a business leader, your team and your competition will include men and women. Confidence in one’s intellect and competency are prerequisites to success.

The “Gender Differences” paper supports Deidre’s advice. Several studies cited in the paper show that student self-concept drives course selection in college and eventually career choices. And even when boys and girls both test well, girls have a lower self-concept than boys in STEM subjects. Some of this may come from the influence of educators. The paper notes that a study found that British teachers favored boys in STEM subjects even when girls achieved higher marks.

The paper cited research over large samples of boys and girls around the world showing that, in general, girls perform better in the humanities and boys in STEM subjects. But it also shows that boys and girls have different educational goals. Boys tend to “sacrifice deeper understanding for correct answers achieved quickly,” while girls tend to prefer deeper understanding of a topic and respond negatively to “excessive competition” often present in advanced educational environments. In early grades where STEM testing rewards rote memorization the difference in educational goals may impact girl’s self-concept negatively.

A sign that the gender gap in academic self-perception might be closing is that boys and girls both attribute academic success to ability and failure to lack of effort. In the past, girls have attributed failure to lack of ability. The State of Virginia has reported that a higher total number of women are pursuing STEM programs in college than men. But a disproportionate percentage of women are pursuing technical degrees in health professions rather than bachelor’s degrees. When they do pursue a bachelor’s, girls prefer biology or agricultural sciences. A separate study conducted by the American Institutes of Research found that “a sizable gender gap persists in engineering and the computer sciences”:

Unlike their minority peers, there is a substantial degree-attainment gap between White women and White men in the physical sciences, computer sciences, engineering, and the earth, atmospheric, and oceanic sciences.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy says that “Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.” But women in STEM careers still face income inequality. The "Gender Differences" paper found that gifted women earn less than their male peers but express greater satisfaction with their earnings than men with the same job. More pressure needs to be put on employers to provide equal pay even when employees identify as “satisfied.”

The "Gender Differences" paper tells us that academic success does not lead to career success—and that holds true for boys and girls. Ultimately it is more important that students have a strong self-concept—a sense of self formed by the child through interaction with peers, family and community, and educators.

When I asked Paknard for one piece of advice for my daughters she summarized the "Gender Differences" paper’s advice to children, “Do your best, always. That’s all you really have, and it’s all you really need.”