Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why do smart women forego success?

Smart career woman
Gifted girls show exceptional promise, typically surpassing boys on most measures of success. Their language, attention and fine motor skills are often 1 1/2 years ahead when they enter school, and their social maturity and relational skills help them thrive in most academic settings. Confident in their abilities, they excel throughout school, receiving higher grades on average than boys. They are also more likely to graduate from high school, college or graduate school.

Despite their relative success, many bright, talented women no longer maintain their confident youthful enthusiasm. Criticized by high-profile authors like Sheryl Sandberg for not climbing the career ladder, women are often reluctant to promote themselves in the workforce or pursue higher paying careers, such as those in engineering or computer science. Some even feel like impostors, tormented by self-doubt and insecurity.

Why do gifted women lose confidence?

The self-doubt and insecurity start out gradually...

Those bright, energetic gifted girls often start to downplay their talents by middle school in an attempt to fit in. They mask their abilities and "dumb themselves down" to appeal to boys, fit society's image of an attractive woman, and avoid conflict with friends. Their self-esteem starts to decrease, and they begin to lose confidence in their abilities, especially in math and science. They may steer clear of the more difficult math courses, believing that boys are intrinsically "more gifted."

Insecurity and self-doubt often persist throughout high school. One study, for example, found that feelings of hopelessness, discouragement, emotional vulnerability and perfectionism increased for gifted girls from 1st through 12th grades. In another investigation, 3/4 of girls who graduated from a school for the gifted did not think they were smart.

Women in college continue to doubt themselves. Many gifted women are challenged for the first time once they arrive at college, and rather than embrace this opportunity, they view it as confirmation of their inadequacies. One study found that female valedictorians lost confidence in themselves when they were in college, despite getting good grades, and that their insecurity increased as they got older.

What are some reasons gifted women hold themselves back?

1. Impostor syndrome: 

Women may doubt themselves and think they have fooled others. Talents and accomplishments are denigrated. Women who feel like impostors assume that it is only a matter of time before their "actual" incompetence and lack of intelligence will be revealed.  Social psychology studies have shown that men consistently overestimate and women consistently underestimate their abilities and subsequent performance. As long as they view themselves as impostors, they will continue to doubt and disparage their accomplishments.

2. Attribution error: 

Women often attribute their success to luck or effort, and any failure to lack of ability or an internal flaw. There is a widespread assumption that gifted men are intrinsically "smarter" and that women's success is due to hard work.  In one survey of professors, presumed brilliance was identified as the reason why women were underrepresented in certain fields in both science and liberal arts (e.g., STEM, philosophy, economics), and their prevalence in other fields (e.g., molecular biology, neuroscience, psychology) was attributed to hard work.

3. A higher standard:

Women often hold themselves to an unreasonably high standard. They expect themselves to perfect a skill, have complete knowledge of the facts or master an argument before they assert their authority. Women often lack confidence, hold back on asking for a promotion, expect to earn less, and ask for less when it comes to salary. 
According to Kay and Shipman:
"Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels."
4. Identity conflict:

Adult women also doubt their right to engage in focused, competitive goals. They don't want to be labeled as "bitchy" or bossy, and worry that success will be seen as a threat to friends, family or men. Women have been raised to focus on relationships and to put others first, and a single-minded emphasis on career is in conflict with their sense of self. Even self-identified feminists may feel guilty winning an award, surpassing colleagues for a promotion, or being the breadwinner in the family.

But, sometimes, it's not about confidence...

Self-doubt, sexist stereotypes, prejudices, an absence of workplace support (e.g., no child-care or family leave), and the glass ceiling all impact women's progress; yet one of the greatest dilemmas many gifted women face involves finding a meaningful work-life balance. This not only includes an ability to combine work, relationships and child-raising, but also pursuing a career that is both meaningful and challenging.

Many women feel torn between pursuing a career that is personally meaningful (such as one focusing on social justice) and a job in a lucrative or competitive field.  A challenging career may be compelling, but women also want flexibility, autonomy, the ability to make a difference, and options for including family needs in the equation. 

Rosenbloom reported that interests and preferences explain 83% of the gender differences in choosing a career in information technology - not confidence or math ability. Women were identified in this study as being less interested in inanimate systems, and more concerned with plants, animals and people.

Pinker also concluded that women made an active choice to avoid STEM careers, suggesting that women may not want to sacrifice personal interests for salary, are less willing to tolerate the relocations often required in these jobs, and may want to focus on people and the arts rather than objects.

Mohr referred to a frequently quoted Hewlett-Packard internal report indicating that women applied for promotions only when they thought they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men applied as long as they assumed that they met 60% of the criteria. Mohr claimed that women's lack of confidence was not the only interpretation to consider: fear of failure, a tendency to strictly follow rules, and lack of familiarity with the hiring process also hold women back.

In the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youths, those who scored in the top 1% were tracked down in their 50's. While most were highly satisfied with their lives, earned more than others, and were more likely to have doctoral degrees, gender differences were identified. Men were more likely to be CEO's, work in IT or STEM, to have pursued higher pay and freedom as career goals, and earned more than the women in the study ($140,000 vs. $80,000 on average); the women were more likely to work in health sciences, arts or education careers, and sought fewer work hours and greater flexibility in their work.

What smart women need to know...

Smart women need to appreciate their talents and recognize their right to accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves. Negative stereotypes and expectations that either they or others impose need to be challenged and relinquished. Decisions based on values, needs and personal goals rather than conformity, external pressure or a desire to please others is critical. Women do not have to pursue a highly competitive career; they just need to know that they are entitled to choose that path, or to turn it down for something equally meaningful. 

In addition to my work with gifted individuals, I have specialized in women's issues and eating disorders for over 30 years. This blog post is one in a series about gifted girls and women.

Other posts about gifted girls and women include:

Key relationship dilemmas for gifted women
Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths
What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school
Gifted women, gifted girls and mental health
Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?
What stops girls from learning math?

Articles and books worth reading:

American Association of University Women. (2015). Solving the equation: The variables for women’s success in engineering and computing. Washington, D.C., author.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory of women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC. 

Jensen, F. & Nutt, A. (2015, January 3). Teen girls have different brains: Gender, neuroscience and the truth about adolescence.  Retrieved from

Jordan, J., Kaplan, A, Miller, J. Stiver, I. & Surrey, J. (1991). Women’s growth in connection. New York: Guilford Press.

Jordan, J., Walker, M. & Hartling, L. (2004). The complexity of connections. New York: Guilford Press.

Kanazawa, S. & Perina, K. (2009). Why do so many women experience the “imposter syndrome”? [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Kay, K & Shipman, C. (2014, May). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Lubinski, D., Benbow, C., & Harrison, K. (2014). Life paths and accomplishments of mathematically precocious males and females four decades later. Psychological Science, 25, 2217-2232.

Pinker, S. (2010, April, 19). Women, computers and engineering: It’s not all about bias. [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

Russell Sage Foundation. (2013). The rise of women: Seven charts showing women’s rapid gains in educational achievement. New York, author.

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Ages and Stages of Giftedness. To see more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:


  1. I can so relate to this. I was great at school, but got distracted in high school, and then didn't feel I had the right to push myself forward at my job. I wish someone had been a better role model - everyone I knew who were successful were men. I hope that my daughter will learn from my mistakes.

    1. Anonymous,
      Your description is so typical of what many women have encountered. Not enough role models or direction, and then uncertainty about how to assert themselves in the workplace. I am sure you are doing all you can for your daughter. Thanks for your feedback.

  2. I love your post and list of sources! This is an incredible resource. I wonder if one other possibly related factor might be a continuing gender imbalance in domestic roles (i.e., in the majority of marriages, women are still primarily responsible for children & the house, regardless of job/income), and corresponding expectations from employers (not many jobs offer paternity leave, or are open to flexible schedules for fathers)? While it may not have a direct impact on young students, in feminist literature it's thought to contribute to the glass ceiling effect... and since female role models are important to young girls, I can't help but wonder if there could be an impact. I am so excited about your post, and I hope it prompts more discussions about gender, education and potential. Thank you.

    1. Emily,
      Thanks so much for your comments. I completely agree - the expectation that women are caretakers has a powerful effect on women's choices and also on employers' decisions. Hewlett and Luce write about this in their article in a link in one of the paragraphs above. But you can also access it here: It is an interesting article.

      Anyway, I appreciate your feedback and am glad that this post had an impact on you!

  3. Gail. I feel like a broken record when I comment on your posts but they're always so well written and full of valuable information. You are one resource that I always send my clients to if they want to learn more about giftedness.

    1. Paula, I am so flattered and appreciative of your kind words. Thanks again.

  4. Such important information and reminders. Thank you! Now that our son is married and half way across the country, I find myself asking old questions about meaningful living in a new way. Thanks for such good resources to pursue.

  5. While I do agree with most of the points you make in this post, why do you lead with the statement that gifted girls "typically surpassing boys on most measures of success"? It does not really support the rest of the article, and it is also misleading.

    First, by boys, do you mean all boys or do you mean gifted boys? That wasn't clear to me. If you meant all boys, that is not really a fair comparison. If you meant gifted boys, can you point to a study offer literature to support this claim? From what I've read, while most girls do initially mature sightly earlier, typically boys catch up in the middle school years (according to Lise Eliot on her book "Pink Brain, Blue Brain").

    Second, there appears to be a strong assumption by educators and parents alike that girls are going to do better than boys in school, and that unconsciously spreads bias against typical male learning styles and, to a certain degree, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. William Pollack discusses this in his book "Real Boys."

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    1. Fiddlin', You raise a fair point - I wasn't as clear as I should have been in my first paragraph. Girls in general surpass boys initially. This is true overall. And boys DO catch up. That's the point - girls fall behind and the question is: why does this occur?

      While I agree that there are significant problems in how schools treat boys (ignoring their visual-spatial skills, need to build, compete, move around, etc.), and how teachers may prefer girls' behavior in classrooms, there actually is a fair amount of literature suggesting that there is unconscious discouragement and underestimation of girls' abilities by both teachers and parents. (See the following for examples:,,,

      Sadly, there are different biases toward both boys and girls. This article is about women. As the parent of two boys and as a psychologist who works with many adolescent boys, as well as men, I could easily describe some of the problems boys and men face. And I plan to write about it at a later time.

      What do others think about bias toward girls and boys in the schools?

    2. Indeed, there are many challenges for girls in school and I agree with every point you make. However, if we could fix all of these issues today, your opening statement left me with the impression that girls would, as a whole, always be ahead of boys, that boys are intrinsically behind on most measures of success if all else is equal.

      My point is that the statement: "Gifted girls show exceptional promise, typically surpassing boys on most measures of success" could be just as effective and be fully supported by your post as statement such as: "Gifted girls show exceptional promise from a young age" without having to drag in a gender comparison.

  6. This was amazing to read thank you! I had a great start to school, but due to some family struggles in a small community and trying desperately to 'fit in' I started slipping at school which resulted in believing that I wasn't good enough, always working that bit harder so no one found out that I was faking it all.
    Two of my children are now attending a school for gifted children and have recently come home talking about imposter syndrome, and suddenly the pieces fit together.
    Reading your piece basically confirms my feelings and emotions throughout my working life.

  7. This was fascinating reading. Imposter syndrome... yes I know that's me. I have been learning a lot recently about growth mindsets which also fits with your article, in that when you attribute your success to innate ability rather than perseverance, the moment things become difficult you give up. I can also relate to this for myself and my own children.