Are We Dumbing Down Our Girls?
The following is an actual account of one of my students from the beginning of my teaching career. Her name has been changed, but her story is true. Rather than being prescriptive about what actions to take, I simply reflect on an event in my teaching career that had a big impact on me and questions that it raises.
Jess was a cute, petite, blonde haired eighth grader, with bright blue eyes and suntanned skin. All of the boys in her gifted class were enamored by her. She, however, was not enamored with her classwork. My team of teachers worked together to create a rigorous and engaging interdisciplinary curriculum and really pushed the gifted class to achieve. Jess did just enough to get by, prompting one of the teachers on the team to suggest that we move her to one of the “lower” classes. This, from a man who was an experienced gifted teacher and strove to see the potential in every student; he simply did not believe that this student had what it took to be in his gifted class. He put it quite bluntly one day saying that, “she had no business being in a gifted class!” Since Jess had qualified for gifted services in elementary school, she was required to continue in the program, much to his annoyance.
Jess didn’t do much better in my class. She seemed to like to read and write topics that interested her, but would produce less on topics that she was not interested in. She didn’t participate in class, and when she was called on, she answered in a high falsetto voice, claiming that she did not “get it”. She seemed to get a kick out of the exasperated reaction from her classmates. I tried my best to encourage her and help her “get it”. Then one day, I saw her in a completely different light…
The class was working on a challenging project. Jess announced loudly “I don’t get it!” All of a sudden there was a swarm boys surrounding her, all vying for her attention to explain it to her practically fighting over the change to help her. Annoyed, I said, “Boys, sit down! She doesn’t need your help, in fact, I bet she can teach all of you how to do it!”
As they went back to their seats, I noticed the expression on Jess’s face change---there was a flash of surprise, then she appeared to size me up and a slight smirk appeared on her face. From that day on, Jess did all of my assignments, earning among the highest grades, though she still did “average” in the rest of her classes. I continued to hear her other teachers complain that she did not belong in the gifted program, and they were quite surprised to hear how well she was doing in my class.
At the end of the school year, the standardized test results came in. The class as a whole did very well, but one student in particular earned a perfect 5 on each test. Everyone-the students and teachers- were shocked at who it was, expect for me…
I call it the “Pretty, Dumb Girl Effect”. It seems to happen around seventh or eighth grade when girls are starting to become interested in getting attention from boys. They quickly see that raising their hands and asserting themselves in class is not the way to get the attention they crave. Instead, they withdraw or, as Jess did, adopt a new persona. Jess did not want her teachers to know how smart she really was. She did not want to be “gifted” any more. She wanted to fit in.
Since I “caught on” to Jess, she rewarded me by performing in my class (but not enough to blow her “cover”). It has been over a decade since Jess was in my class and I have met many more girls like her. They hide their intelligence to fit in. Their teachers are “tricked”. Instead of being assigned to classes based on their actual ability, they get placed by their teacher recommendation into less rigorous classes because they “don’t have what it takes”.
What can be done to “outsmart” the Pretty, Dumb Girl Effect? While teachers do not have the power to change society’s expectations, we can change our own expectations. As an aside, I used to hate the character, Penny, on the television show, The Big Bang Theory, for perpetuating the Pretty Dumb Girl Effect, but over the years her character has become much more multifaceted.
How do we recognize those students who may be hiding their intelligence? It is not about recognizing those particular students, but having high expectations and encouraging ALL students. In this post, I specified a gifted girl-a demographic that many believe is the highest risk of underperforming. Minority gifted girls are considered even more at risk. It is widely documented that there is a gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) classes and jobs. One could argue that there is not a gender gap, but perhaps an expectations gap. In the book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg provides a vivid example of this as she tells of the store, Gymboree, selling baby clothing that read, “I am smart, like Daddy” for boys and, “I am pretty, like Mommy” for girls.
I hope that the story of Jess will prompt teachers and parents to reflect on their interactions with their girls in effort to reduce the expectations gap. Often it is just seeing the student in a new light that can make all the difference.