Special Populations in GATE: Gifted Adolescent Females

In my final semester of my masters program, I’m taking the class I’ve been waiting for: Special Populations in Gifted Education. The course is held online, so all conversations take place on BlackBoard.

The second reading, ““I Used To Be Gifted”: Exploring Potential Among Gifted Adolescent Females” by Ginny Maurer, was published in Special populations in gifted education: Understanding our most able Students from diverse background (Castellano & Frazier, 2011)My thoughts are below…

How do we treat females differently than males? School Experiences

In this section, Maurer discusses the disparities between perceived femininity, gender constructs and the characteristics of intelligence. The roles of women, historically in Western culture, have valued a passivity and been relegated to the domain of the private, the home. In contrast, masculinity was heralded in the domain of the public by way of its assertiveness, boisterousness, and authoritativeness.  The effects of these binary definitions on young girls in the classroom can be debilitating. In my experience, teachers are more willing to dismiss these masculine behaviors in males as “boys being boys” and remind girls to be more “ladylike” when they attempt to assert themselves. One example I see often, both in a school setting, but also in my own professional career (and my own school career), is this idea that women who are ambitious, outgoing,  and assertive are somehow just being bossy (or worse…), whereas men who exhibit these same characteristics are seen as leaders. These stereotypes shun girls from speaking up in class, taking the lead on a project or going for their dreams for fear of being seen as something negative or less feminine. They set girls at odds with their identities. Additionally, I’ve watched boys rudely interrupt and “mansplain” topics to girls. I’ve had men do this to me in meetings at work and in classes (both in undergrad and this very program.) When I see girls attempt to power through, to speak up and defend themselves, the attacks from peers can be relenting. Middle school is already such a tumultuous time in a child’s lives, pairing it with rigid gender constructs and a lack of coping skills becomes a recipe for disaster.These behaviors in the classroom, when allowed, reinforce these ideals to children that girls are inferior and less valued.

In response to a poster who mentioned the blaring lack of women in STEM…

You hit the nail on the head when you brought up the under-representation of girls/women in STEM programs and fields. I would argue beyond that, there are professions, not just in STEM that are male dominated. These perceptions continue to plague girls and harness their dreams. For instance, thinking just about our profession… I read an article on Eduoptia the other day that was talking about (don’t laugh) the best shoes for teachers. All of the best shoes for teachers were women’s shoes…ballet flats, Dansko clogs, etc. Then, there was one blurb about the best shoes for principals – Rockford Men’s Wingtips (something or the other.) In a simple article about shoes, I’ve been told that the role of principal is for men. Of course, we know that isn’t the case, that more women are in the role of principal, but this message is across careers. Just have a conversation with someone about the medical field and listen for which pronouns they use when they talk about doctors vs. nurses. Or mention that your friend is a doctor to someone. I bet they ask what HIS name is. Now do the same thing to someone else but mentioned your friend, the nurse. These subliminal messages infect our young people and help to further the divide between what girls can and can’t do.

On femininity versus nerdy…are they always mutually exclusive?

I find this interesting because I think it varies depending on a variety of factors, including race and class. We are discussing, in this chapter, what appears to be a monolithic definition of female experience, but in reality, depending on the intersectionality of identifies, these experiences can actually vary greatly. For instance, in my current school, where there is both parental pressure to excel, but also peer pressure to excel, both academically and socially, there isn’t this divide between “nerdy” girls and “popular” girls. They are often one in the same. In my previous school, there were distinct divisions between smart and popular. Popular was the “bad” girls and the smart ones were the more traditionally feminine (by white, hetero-normative standards). Feminine identity in this low-SES, predominantly African American school was not the same as the feminine ideals imposed on white women or middle/upper class women of any race or ethnicity. I find it so interesting when I read these types of generalized ideals of femininity and then consider how these are imposed or discarded by women across identities. The definitions in this book don’t account for these differences. Moreover, it doesn’t account for the way it others women, specifically minority women, who can not identify with the media’s ideals of femininity and beauty. I can’t imagine the double impact this has on some women and how gifted women, in any arena would need to fight against and learn to cope with these images of what they should be. Pair this with the damaging teacher biases and perceptions that see gifted children as white…Oy.

Female relationships – mothers and friends

I was disappointed in the section about the mother/daughter relationship. Not because I disagreed with the material, but more because I’m still not clear how the author connected the research to gifted education. The mother/daughter relationship has been, in my opinion, overcomplicated by the gender constructs of a woman’s role. The media is swimming with images of motherhood – including the good, caring mother (Leave it to Beaver), the terrible mother who isn’t woman enough to handle the responsibility (the Mrs. Brown character in The Hours by Michael Cunningham) to the evil step mother image (in every single Disney movie ever made…) Women are indoctrinated from birth on how mother daughter relationships can play out. As women, we grow up knowing the mother/daughter relationship is complicated. “Mommy issues” is a thing (to be fair, so are “daddy issues”) but mommy issues tend to be the norm, and something we all go to therapy for (according to pop culture, with the image of every single psychologist asking their patient to “tell me about your mother…”) while daddy issues are reserved for the most deprived of women.

Yet in the end, I’m still not clear on the affect this has on gifted girls specifically. I make the assumption the author is trying to posit that the relationship between mother and daughter can set the stage for a young child’s development, either positively or negatively. Because this is the first relationship a child experiences, she learns to love herself and model herself (or distance herself) based on this bond. Young girls take their clues from their mothers, and therefore, play a critical role in helping develop their gifts and talents. Specifically, Maurer stated, “…the mother’s caretaking defines the parameters for development of trust and where a daughters learns about feminine role behavior and cultural expectations. Learned feminine behaviors, as opposed to masculine role behaviors, oftentimes include limited assertiveness and increased dependency…” (p. 217). In other words, this bond between mother and daughter can play a large role in either nurturing or holding back a gifted child’s development. She goes on to say that the way for daughters to not fall victim to these socially constructed roles is through “maternal rejection.” which is in turn related to later achievement. I have a hard time with the word rejection. I think that a shift in dialogue can have the same affect and that we can rebrand the actions of mothers in a more positive light (rejection has such a negative connotation.) If parents talk to their children openly about the expectations of society for both men and women, and consciously reject these expectations and constructions, girls will have a much better chance of surviving them if they know they are supported by their parents. It doesn’t have to be a rejection by the mother and protection by the father. We, as parents, can help bolster our children by showing them that society has it wrong. Girls and women can choose their destiny, there is no one right path and that they have the support they need to exceed expectations.

What does this look like in practice? There is a growing body of research out there on improving the self-image of young women and promoting images of girls and women as smart, successful and assertive. These campaigns seek to change the perception of women as passive. Feminism has historically had a problem with motherhood, asserting that women must give up motherhood in order to fight for equality. Instead, I posit that women should be given choices outside the confines of societal expectations. Additionally, women should not feel that motherhood and feminism are mutually exclusive. We need a shifting dialogue about the roles of women. We need a culture that stops shaming women for having careers. It isn’t maternal rejection for mothers to start doing what father’s have always done. As women, we can model for our female children what success and assertiveness look like. We can continue our education, fight to break glass ceilings in our careers and encourage them to do the same. We can have conversations with our partners about how they can support this image. We can raise our young boys to be caretakers, removing the stigma that creates gender role divisions. In other words, let your boys play with dolls, for starters, so they can learn that caretaking isn’t just for women. I think the research is indicative of the larger gender issues in society, and thus become a cyclical and destructive. Audre Lorde said ” The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Until women stop trying to deconstruct gender binaries within the social constructions of femininity and motherhood, they will never make a shift in ideology.

The media in our patriarchical society

One thing that struck a nerve for me, and has for a while, is the fact that “mass media is an equal opportunity destroyer of lives based on its consistent pattern of perpetuating stereotypes  that often reduce females to powerless victims” (Maurer, 2011, p. 212). Women have been speaking up for some time about the lack of powerful leading women in TV and movies. Women are almost always the victim to a male crime (SUV popularity is propagated on this idea of powerlessness.) Women, when present in powerful roles, are often reduced to neurotic, hysterical, anxious messes who succumb to frivolity. Aaron Sorkin’s portrayal of women on The West Wing and Newsroom are excellent examples. He puts women in to powerful positions (such as the main producer of a popular news show or the press secretary for the White House) and the show leads (not THE lead, mind you). But while showing them as strong and brilliant, he also makes them stereotypically woman – caught up in their looks, unable to figure out why the boy doesn’t like them, neurotic, etc. Lastly, when women are present as THE lead, they are often overly sexualized in their role (ever seen the comic that compares the poses of female superheroes to males? Or better, puts men in the female poses?) There isn’t only a lack of women, this problem extends to minorities as well. As the author states, this serves to perpetuate the negative, conflicting and/or unachievable ideals of womanhood. In teaching middle school, I see these trends and the ways they affect my girls. It shoves them in to boxes. They feel the pressure to conform. They get mixed messages about what it means to be a woman. The author mentions at the start of the chapter the ways gifted girls grow up with an “intense degree of perfectionism, perseverance, sensitivity, empathy, nonconformity or introversion” and when presented with unattainable ideas of beauty and conflicting ideas of womanhood, it makes sense that gifted girls would be affected even worse. This chapter begs the question, what do we do? I was disappointed to read in her conclusion that “realistic approaches to create necessary change require a certain resignation to the forces that exist within our culture”   (Maurer, 2011, p. 222). I believe the opposite is true. If we resign our selves to these inequities, we become a part of the problem. Movements to correct the wrongs of society, who actively work to over turn them, who speak out against them, are the only way to create change. I quoted her in another post, but it feels even more relevant here…”The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde).


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