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by Megan Blakely

Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness

by Barbara A. Kerr
Book Review/Summary:

Smart Girls is an outstanding study of the journey from gifted girl to gifted women and what separates those who achieve from the gifted girls that seem to grow up and fall off the map. This outstanding book, originally published under the title Smart Girls, Gifted Women in 1985, has been revised and republished in it’s most recent edition: Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness in 1994.

The book begins with Kerr taking a look back into her own childhood as a gifted girl and then re-examining the lives of fellow gifted women from their identification as gifted back in the post-Sputnik era to their current lives. She devises a survey, working with the Guidance Laboratory for Gifted and Talented at the University of Nebraska, to help illuminate the choices these women made in their lives and the effects of those choices. The questions focused on family and parental involvement, career goals over time, marriage and child-raising, effects of the Accelerated Learning Program, the label of “gifted”, and what they would change in their lives. She found the results over-whelming leaning toward a lack of self-fulfillment, for the most part in which many of these women had denied their giftedness, lowered their sights, and adjusted to fit in with more traditional societal roles of women. However, she notes that, “My strong bias concerning the importance of women realizing their intellectual potential has certainly affected my interpretation of the information of my classmates,” (p. 47). None-the-less, many of her findings are concordant with the findings of others, including none other than Lewis Terman.

Like Terman’s studies, Kerr found that “gifted girls have less depression, fewer conduct disorders, and fewer social/peer relationship problems than any other group” additionally they show “more leadership ability” and are “more achieving,” (p. 112). Kerr found there were several key facts about gifted girls in each stage of their development:

Key Facts of Pre-Teen Gifted Girls… (p.115-116)
  • Many gifted girls are superior physically, have more social knowledge, and are better adjusted than are average girls.
  • In their interests, gifted girls are more like gifted boys than they are like average girls. Even so, they usually maintain enough behaviors of other girls so as not to seem too “different.”
  • Gifted girls have high career goals
  • Gifted girls are more strongly influenced by their mothers than are gifted boys.
  • More highly gifted girls are not as likely to seem well-adjusted.
  • Highly gifted girls are often loners without much need for recognition
  • Highly gifted girls are often second-born females
  • Suburbs and small cities produce more female Presidential Scholars than do rural and urban areas.
  • Highly gifted girls aspire to careers having moderate rather than high status.
  • Highly gifted girls have high academic achievement.
  • Actual occupations of parents do not affect gifted girls' eventual choice of career.
  • Career-focused gifted women may have had, as girls, to be indifferent to all pressures or encouragements in order to pursue their interests straightforwardly.
  • Gifted girls at age ten express wishes and needs for self-esteem.
  • Gifted girls are interested in fulfilling needs for self-esteem through school and club achievements.
  • Gifted girls are confident in their opinions and willing to argue for their point of view.

Key Facts of Adolescent Gifted Girls… (p. 124-125)
  • Gifted girls' IQ scores drop in adolescence, perhaps as girls begin to perceive that giftedness in females is undesirable
  • Gifted girls are likely to continue to have higher academic achievement as measured by grade point average
  • Gifted girls take less rigorous courses than gifted boys in high school.
  • Gifted girls maintain a high involvement in extracurricular and social activities during adolescence.
  • Highly gifted girls often do not receive recognition for their achievements.
  • Highly gifted girls do very well academically in high school.
  • Highly gifted girls attend less prestigious colleges than highly gifted boys, a choice that leads to lower-status careers.
  • Girls in the Realization of Potential study rated themselves higher on positive personality traits than average girls did.
  • The age from twelve to fourteen years, when a strong shift of values occurs, is a critical time for gifted girls.
  • The change in values at this point is related to strong needs for love and belonging.
  • Adolescence may also bring a steep decline in self-esteem and confidence in opinions.
  • Gifted adolescent girls who became career-focused were interested in scientific, idea-oriented careers.
  • Gifted adolescent girls who later became home-makers were interested in social, people-oriented careers.
  • Gifted adolescent girls who became integrators of career and homemaking chose social careers most often, but were also interested in scientific careers.
  • Gifted girls fear having to choose between career and marriage, yet this “either/or” dilemma is not in fact a reality for many gifted women.

Key Facts of Gifted College Women… (p. 136)
  • Gifted young women enter college with higher grades but less rigorous course preparation than gifted men.
  • Gifted young women's self-esteem is at a low point upon entrance to college.
  • Valedictorians were found to lower their self-estimate of their intelligence by the sophomore year of college.
  • The typical American coeducational campus is a chilly climate for women, with inequities in and out of the classroom.
  • A powerful campus peer system supports a culture of romance, which rewards a woman's romantic “achievements” while disregarding her intellectual ones.
  • Women's colleges provide the recognition for giftedness, identification of fields of study, chances for leadership, and the mentors which gifted women need to succeed; however, only a tiny fraction of gifted women choose these colleges.

Key Facts of Gifted Women (Post-College/ In Careers)… (p. 150-152)
  • Gifted women’s academic and vocational achievement, compared to that of gifted men, continues to decline, particularly during childbearing years.
  • Gifted women’s I.Q.s do not predict career achievement or employment.
  • Only a small group of gifted women in the past entered the higher professions; despite indications that this is changing, a backlash exists against women of high aspirations.
  • Salaries of gifted women have been much lower than those of men in occupations at the same level. In 1955, the gifted women’s median salary at midlife was one-half that of gifted men. Today, gifted women’s lower salaries seem to be directly related to the fact that they are in more temporary and part-time positions. However, income is not related to life satisfaction.
  • Single, working, childless gifted women, looking back on their lives, are highly satisfied as a group.
  • Gifted women engaged in income-producing work are more satisfied with their lives than are those who are not.
  • Highly gifted women need time to catch up to men.
  • Highly gifted men’s income has averaged almost twice that of highly gifted women.
  • Only a small proportion of highly gifted women were unemployed 15 years after high school graduation.
  • Early remarriage and childbirth are closely related to low achievement of career goals.
  • Marriage and childbirth affect the achievement of high-potential women much more than they do that of high-potential men.
  • Women who drop out of careers to marry and raise children may not catch up with their male peers for the rest of their working lives.
  • Age forty may mark another critical change in lifestyle values for gifted women, as a point in time when esteem needs become highly important and the urge for self-actualization may be great.
  • The age of forty may mark a period of either transforming or being overwhelmed for women who have not focused on their vocational goals.
  • Single career women derive great satisfaction from their work, and also enjoy their friends, hobbies, and community activities.
  • Homemakers receiver less satisfaction from their work than do single career women or integrators. In addition, many do not seem to derive satisfaction from community activities and hobbies.
  • Integrators are more satisfied with their careers than are single career women and are as satisfied with their families as are homemakers.

Kerr also devotes a chapter of her book to “Eminent Women” and notes there are many distinguishing similarities among these prominent gifted women. Each of these women spent much of their time alone and spent a great deal of time reading. They each felt different, special, or unique in some way—both positively and negatively. They received much individualized instruction—Kerr is a huge proponent of mentors, particularly strong female mentors for young gifted girls—and many received same-sex education—Kerr sights several studies supporting all-girl schools and environments as providing the best education for young gifted females. Many had difficult adolescences, avoid confluence, take responsibility for themselves, find love through their work and refuse to acknowledge gender limitations. Most importantly, each of these individuals fell in love with an idea that drove them to excellence in their fields and followed it through in their lives.

Kerr discusses many of the barriers—both external and internal—to the achievement of gifted women. Kerr states that “underachievement and underutilization of gifted women in fact” due to “overt discrimination” in our culture and an “environment that [is] hostile to feminine achievement,” (p. 239). Some of the external barriers include shaping for femininity—a grooming of girls for their traditional roles in society that takes place, practically from birth, in which gender roles and stereotyping indicates the role a woman is intended to fulfill, sexism and discrimination, and a lack of resources—particularly for minority or economically disadvantaged gifted women. However, the most halting barriers for gifted girls and women are internal: the Horner Effect or Fear of Success Syndrome—in which a woman is afraid to out-perform a man, the Cinderella complex—where a woman is psychologically dependent upon some external force (usually a man) to change or transform their life, the Imposter Phenomenon—where a gifted woman feels that she is not actually gifted, but has somehow tricked everyone into thinking she is, and the plunge in self-esteem that typically hits women somewhere between grades four and ten. Because there are so many barriers to gifted women achievement, Kerr discusses the importance of guidance throughout the lives of gifted girls by parents, teachers, counselors, administrators and mentors.

Kerr also has a chapter about gifted minority girls and women as well as a chapter on girls and women with specific extraordinary talents. These are topics covered by other wikis and would make an excellent resource for either of those groups if they wanted to look at gifted females in particular.

“What that must be done for gifted girls?” Kerr asks as she concludes her work. First, we must identify them—through I.Q., creativity tests, musical auditions, art competitions, and new techniques that “cast a wide net.” Second, we must nourish their talents by providing them access to the activities and outlets they need through avenues like acceleration and individualized instruction. Third, we must guide them through counseling, parental support, career guidance, and mentoring. Fourth, we must love them. Because gifted girls tend to be more emotional and tends toward feelings of isolation, it is all that much more important that they know that they are loved and feel supported. Finally, society must make room for them. Gifted girls need the space to grow into gifted women and need to be hailed as equal to their male peers throughout their lives if they are to succeed in fulfilling their full potential.

“Gifted women have revitalized the arts, humanized the sciences, and changed our history. Our daughters can shape the future if only we challenge them, guide them, and preserve their hope,” (p. 242).

Kerr, Barbara A. (1994). Smart girls: A new psychology of girls, women, and giftedness (Revised edition). Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press.

About the Author:


Barbara Alane Kerr is a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and is a distinguished professor at the University of Kansas whose research specializes in psychology of optimal human development, including giftedness, creativity, and spirituality; counseling and psychotherapy; gender issues. She has been awarded by the American Psychological Foundation, is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and has received an APA Presidential Citation for Excellence in Research through Service.

Other Links and Resources:

An additional/alternative review of Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development can be found here:

Barbara Kerr is also the author of Smart Boys: Talent, Manhood, and the Search for Meaning (2001). For a review of this book, see the review in the Davidson Institute for Talent Development by Brandy Case Haub:

Barbara Kerr has also written A Handbook for Consulting with Gifted and Talented, which has been re-produced, with the author’s permission, online: This link is a CLOES (Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States) to serve as a guide for teachers, counselors, administrators and parents of gifted students. The following link is the chapter in this handbook specifically about “Counseling Gifted and Talented Girls” and should give the reader an idea of what her larger work about gifted women—Smart Girls—is like: