Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths

Whether Americans like her, agree with her platform, or can't stand her, it is likely there will be a presidential candidate who is a woman. Whether Hilary Clinton has a chance of winning is unclear. Many don't like her. Some don't trust her. But few would doubt her drive or intelligence.

There have been only 31 women ever elected to the US Senate. While women make up 45% of the workforce, only 5% are CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, which is considered an all-time high. And women are typically underrepresented in all STEM fields, comprising only 18% of computer science and 12% of engineering graduates.

Social/cultural pressure and sexism notwithstanding, what is puzzling about this gender gap in positions of power and "traditional" success, is that girls typically surpass boys in their development:

  • Compared to boys, girls demonstrate more advanced verbal and fine-motor skills and a longer attention span. They develop organizational and attentional skills at an earlier age, and their reading and writing abilities surpass those of boys, on average, by 1 1/2 years.

  • Girls also typically exhibit better social skills, including greater relational skills, patience, cooperativeness, and empathy.

  • Girls excel throughout elementary school, often surpassing boys on most measures of academic success. Confident and curious, they approach learning with passion and drive.

Yet, pre-teen girls typically start to lose confidence in middle school, that confluence of drama, social pressure, and self-scrutiny. Peer influences, cultural messages demanding conformity, and interest in boys have a powerful effect on self-esteem. But hormonal and brain differences also play a role:

  • The effects of estrogen increase a desire for bonding and connection and discourage risk-taking, while testosterone (10 times higher in males) fuels risks. Given the hormonal roller-coaster that spikes in  early adolescence, different confidence levels between genders is not surprising.

  • The amygdala develops 18 months sooner in girls during early adolescence. Women's amygdalae are activated more easily in response to stressful situations, contributing to a tendency to worry and to react to negative events by forming strong emotional memories.

  • The anterior cingulate cortex is larger in women. This part of the brain is associated with weighing choices and options, scanning the environment for threats, and noticing errors. This may contribute to a tendency toward caution, indecisiveness or self-criticism.

  •  On a positive note, the corpus colllosum, the strip of neural tissue that links the hemispheres of the brain, is 25% larger in girls, contributing to greater connectivity between the hemispheres. This may promote a greater facility with handling different tasks and easily switching between tasks.

Regardless of social, cultural or school pressures, the neuro/bio/chemical influences listed above suggest that teen girls (on average*) tend toward self-doubt, hesitation and second-guessing their behaviors. Highly competent, socially mature, and capable of handling multiple tasks, they still hold themselves back. Gifted girls, in particular, who typically display heightened sensitivity, overexcitablities, and sometimes even perfectionistic tendencies, may be especially vulnerable to the self-criticism and anxiety that emerges - and which may last long past middle school. Given the powerful, immutable effect of these biological influences, what can girls and women do?

1. View these biological influences as strengths - not weaknesses. Caution, self-awareness and self-scrutiny, in their most positive form, can be aspects of conscientiousness - the variable most consistently associated with academic staying power. Highly focused, conscientious girls are more organized, diligent and determined, and get the job done.

2. Embrace the collaborative, cooperative nature of women's relational strengths. More and more businesses are recognizing that a collaborative, team approach gets faster results than an individual-centric one. Women excel at forming relationships, and this can help them in all aspects of academics and career.

3. Work to eliminate fears when they affect self-esteem and success. If chronic self-doubt or fear of taking risks interfere with progress or personal well-being, it is time to seek help to eliminate the problem. Self-scrutiny, worry and hesitation may be inherent tendencies, but not ones that cannot be changed.

Women's neuro/bio/chemical influences are a factor in who they are - but not necessarily a roadblock to success. They can be an asset if women view them positively and learn to harness their inherent strengths.

(*this information is based on averages - and not specific to any individual)

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:

What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Why do smart women forego success?
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?

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on the Mysteries of the brain. To see more blogs, click on the following link:



  1. Gail, thanks for your suggestions to women about harnessing inherent strengths. I'm happy to see you've provided your readers with a whole series of blog article about women and girls. Valuable information, for sure.

  2. I love this, Gail. I think it's important to mention the neuro/bio/chemical influences. I don't often see them brought up when this topic is discussed.