Jezebel just published this article — Girls Underestimate Their Own Intelligence, which cites a classic study that says smart girls are more likely than their male counterparts to give up when trying to solve a tough problem.
Apparently, “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.”
Looking back at my own history, I’ve always said I feel like the biggest failing of the modern education system isn’t gender-based differentiation, it’s skills-based segmentation. From a young age, us kids were grouped — the good english kids separated from the slower readers and the bad math kids kept apart from the kids who’d already mastered their multiplication tables. From those early groups, permanent self-images were formed. I always thought of myself as the kind of kid who would just never get math. It didn’t even occur to me that the subject I struggled with so much in fourth grade would end up forming the foundation of a lot of work I happily do with algorithms and analytics now. And even when a kind chemistry teacher (thanks Dr. D!) took a special interest in fanning the bunson burner flame of a newly-discovered passion for science in tenth grade, I still assumed my innate inability to ‘get’ math meant science just wasn’t in the cards for me either. Who would have thunk I’d be working on semantic web software today?
Now, after reading about that study, I can see how those feelings could be traced back to the way I, as a girl, was taught to see myself vis a vis my scholastic aptitudes and ambitions. Of course, without a Delorean to travel back in time with, there’s no way to say that for sure. But the logic sure does add up. Or, as Dr. D would have me say, there seems to be plenty of evidence in my own experience to support the hypothesis this article posits. Of course, if chemistry class taught me anything, it’s that changing the variables of the experiment can significantly alter the outcome. Which is why I hope that studies like this will soon be relegated to the realm of history class, not current events.