Gender Issues in Gifted Education

Spring 1999 Masthead

Lynn Rose
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

If we examined a high school calculus classroom or the faculty of an engineering program at a university, chances are that the male to female ratio would be significantly skewed. Although there has been no evidence thus far stating that males naturally have a better capacity for understanding math and science, females, even those considered gifted, have tended to shy away from these disciplines. In 1990, the National Science Foundation reported that only 9% of Ph.D. physical scientists and 4% of all engineers are female (Davis & Rimm, 1998). Although one would assume that academically gifted students may excel in the logical and analytical skills required for math and science, gifted females still, on average, tend to feel more uncomfortable with these subjects than their male counterparts. What causes this phenomenon? Do parents, teachers, or peers cause, or at least contribute, to this situation? When do these feelings of inability begin to manifest themselves? Do gifted females’ perceptions of their abilities develop as a result of educational socialization?

There has been a great deal of research conducted on gender differences and stereotypes of both regular and gifted students. A study by Benbow (1992) reported that fewer females are labeled as mathematically gifted than males. The study also stated that females labeled as gifted are less likely to take demanding high school math and science courses, major in math or science in college (40% vs. 72%), or pursue a career in a math or science-related field (24% vs. 56%).

Some studies have shown that differential treatment of males and females begins at an early age, starting with parents. Astin, Suniewick, and Dweck (1974) discovered that parents of female children generally do not buy as many mathematics-related toys and games as do parents of males, thus putting their female children at a distinct disadvantage when they enter the classroom. Other studies found that parents of female children are more likely to downplay the importance of mathematics (Parsons, Adler, & Kaczala, 1982). Jacobs and Weisz’s (1994) study of sixth to eleventh grade students and their parents portrays an alarming finding: Females hold more negative beliefs about their abilities in mathematics even when they earn consistently higher grades than males. Jacobs points to the possibility that parents can influence their children’s perceptions of ability.

Teachers, too, have been found to give differential treatment to males and females. Gifted females are less often encouraged to pursue the study of math and science subjects than males. Some teachers believe that girls tend to be more successful in language arts and that achievement in math and science is reserved for boys (Chauvin & Karnes, 1984). This is not to say that all teachers are biased in their opinions of their students’ achievement. There are many educators, male and female, who successfully cultivate high self-esteem and achievement with their students, some specifically with their female pupils.

For whatever reason, gifted females may hold poor perceptions of their mathematics and science abilities. Perceptions are a learned trait. One study capitalized on this assumption and attempted to help gifted females “unlearn” those potentially detrimental attitudes that they possessed and develop a more realistic and healthy outlook of themselves and their abilities. This study, conducted by Heller and Ziegler in 1996, assumed that a person’s achievement stemmed from two variables, locus of control (either external or internal) and stability (either stable or variable). An external factor is one that a subject is unable to control, such as task difficulty or chance, and an internal factor is one that is able to be controlled by the subject, such as ability or effort. Stability was measured as the consistency of a characteristic over time. Ability and task difficulty were seen as stable, effort and chance were considered variable.

Heller and Ziegler stated that “people formulate specific hypotheses concerning how and why events occurred” (p. 204). Heller and Ziegler quoted Bandura’s belief that for the most positive of situations to occur, success must be attributed to ability, and failure to chance or lack of effort, therefore causing a higher degree of self-efficacy. High school and college females received “attributional retraining” to improve their self-concepts. The training was considered successful although it did have some limitations. However, it made an important point—learned behaviors of this type are not irreversible. Females can be encouraged to confront their insecurities and change them for the better.

Research has found that gender differences between gifted males and females become quite evident by adolescence. Kerr (1985) outlined a number of distressing findings from past studies of gifted adolescent females:

  • Gifted girls’ IQ scores dropped in adolescence, perhaps as they began to perceive their own giftedness as undesirable.
  • Highly gifted girls often do not receive recognition for their achievements.
  • Highly gifted girls attended less prestigious colleges than did highly gifted boys, and this fact seemed to lead to lower status careers. (p. 103)

Noble and Drummond (1992) wrote an article entitled “But What About the Prom? Students’ Perceptions of Early College Entrance” addressing gifted students who elected to participate in the University of Washington’s Early Entrance Program (EEP). Program participants skip middle and/or high school and take courses at the university level. All females in the study were happy with their choice of EEP over high school, but many said that their parents were wary about their daughters missing out on traditional high school social activities. Some EEP students mentioned they regretted not having an opportunity to participate in such social activities, but believed that membership in the EEP program far outweighed attendance at high school sporting events, parties, and dances. “I’m terribly upset to have missed my prom, football games, cheerleading, and keg parties (ha ha, very funny)” (p. 109). Noble and Drummond believe that “high school may be widely perceived as a necessary and normalizing experience on the road to responsible, successful adulthood, but it is not the path that works for all gifted students” (p. 111).

I wanted to know if there were gender differences among high ability, high school science students. I designed a 13-item questionnaire about their academic backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and perceptions of themselves and their high-achieving peers. Two high-ability chemistry classes responded to the questionnaire. The first class was comprised of seven students—three females and four males. All students were required to take chemistry in order to graduate. The second class, an elective chemistry class, included four students—two males and two females. All students participated in gifted or accelerated programs. Interestingly enough, all participants were White in a school population in which 40% were Hispanic and 5% were African-American.

Ideally, it would have been much more revealing to have had a larger and more academically diverse group, but student responses were interesting nonetheless. Most students were heavily involved in school sports and activities and the remaining students had avenues outside school to exercise their talents and interests. All students in the elective chemistry class either liked or considered themselves strong in science, and two specifically stated that they also liked or were strong in math. One has to keep in mind that this second class is an elective science course and students feel somewhat confident about science abilities. One female stated that she is only strong in sciences, with particular interest in marine or equine science. She did not feel as strong in biology or other areas of science in which she did not hold a strong interest. Both males disliked or felt they were weak in English. The two females did not comment on their abilities in English.

When students in the general chemistry class were asked to comment on their strengths and weaknesses, males commented more often on their strengths and females commented more often on their weaknesses. According to the students, males were not necessarily strong in math and science and females were not always strong in English and social sciences. Only three males and one female considered themselves strong in science. The female commented, “I consider myself strong in science, and also enjoy it, but dislike math (and am weak in it), which is sometimes conflicting since math and science often go together (like chemistry).” Two females and one male categorized themselves as weak in chemistry and physics for the very same reason. Mathematics required for both disciplines adversely affected their ability to perform at a satisfactory level. Both believed themselves to be stronger in biology because there was less math involved. More males than females felt they were strong in math (3 vs. 1) and two females and one male felt they were weak in math. Students were asked if they attributed grades in science and math to effort or ability. Three females and one male attributed grades in math and science to effort. One male and one female felt ability played the largest role, and three males and one female believed that both effort and ability played roles in grades earned. Interestingly enough, those who answered “both” believed that a person must first have a natural talent, and when the student combines talent with hard work, good grades will follow. One male said,

First of all, the student needs to understand what is being taught, and then do the work to obtain a good grade. If a student did the work but did not fully understand how a thing is done, that student would hurt on tests and the like.

Students’ responses mildly support findings that females are more likely to attribute their grades to effort, while males are more likely to attribute them to ability.

All students believed that it is important to work with other students of similar academic abilities and interests. One female mentioned the benefit of meeting “other students with different interests” when not working with other high ability students. A second female commented that sometimes when working with other high-ability students, “you can’t focus on your own ideas all the time.”

When asked how high school impacts talented students, four males and two females answered that high school has a generally positive impact, two females and one male answered negatively, and one male commented that only small classes that do not “restrict the development of students” are more beneficial in that they allow for more “attention and individual advancement” than larger classes.

When asked if they had ever felt inclined to hide or downplay their academic talents, three females and three males answered “yes.” One female and three males answered “no.” One female replied, “It’s tempting, because then people will expect less of you, but I think that it is something to be proud of, not something to hide.”

All but one student believe that their parents support and encourage their academic talents. Some typical responses were:

My parents try to push me into doing better in school, but they know it’s my decision and they let me make my own mistakes because they know I can handle the consequence.

Yes, my parents have high expectations and I believe I can reach them.

Yes, they expect me to do my best, but that doesn’t mean that they expect A’s all of the time. They are good about supporting me.

Answers were varied when asked if and how teachers play a role in student achievement. Most felt that teachers are somewhat helpful and encouraging, but often do not devote much time to individual students. Some typical responses were:

Not personally me, but they encourage everyone. No teacher has ever come up to me individually telling me to work harder.

Yes, but only some have really taken the time to get to know me.

Yes, specifically one teacher encouraged me to continue and experiment in the CT Science Fair. The science fair had been a great experience and really helped me realize what I want to do as a career.

All of the students questioned have plans to attend college, but only three were specific in what they planned to do. The three students (two males, one female) plan to enter either scientific or mathematical fields of study.

In summary, student responses revealed slight differences between talented males and females in areas of math and science. However, only a few students were asked to complete a series of questions. School systems should be aware of such gender issues and make efforts to alleviate potential gender differences through special programs or classes that encourage and foster students’ talent. Perhaps by taking those actions, a future student pursuing a degree in education like myself has the opportunity to develop a similar questionnaire for part of a class assignment that will find different, gender-neutral information.

Astin, H. S., Suniewick, N. & Dweck, S. (1974). Women; a bibliography on their education and careers. New York, NY: Behavioral Publications.
Benbow, C. P. (1992). Academic achievement in mathematics and science of students between ages 13 and 23: Are there differences among students in the top one percent of mathematical ability? Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 51-61.
Chauvin, J. C., & Karnes, F. A. (1984). Perceptions of leadership characteristics by gifted elementary students. Roeper Review, 6, 238-240.
Davis, G. A., & Rimm, S. B. (1998). Education of the gifted and talented (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Heller, K., & Ziegler, A. (1996). Gender differences in mathematics and the sciences: Can attributional retraining improve the performance of gifted females? Gifted Child Quarterly, 40, 200-210.
Jacobs, J., & Weisz, V. (1994). Gender stereotypes: Implications for gifted education. Roeper Review, 16, 152-155.
Kerr, B. A. (1985). Smart girls gifted women. Columbus, OH: Ohio Psychology Publishing.
Noble, K. D., & Drummond, J. E. (1992). But what about the prom? Students’ perceptions of early college entrance. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, 106-111.
Parsons, J. E., Adler, T. F., & Kaczala, C. M. (1982). Socialization of achievement attitudes and beliefs: Parental influence. Child Development, 53(2), 310-321.


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