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Where Are The Smart Women?

Where Have All the Smart Women Gone?

By Alice Rowe, Ph. D., 1997.

When society discourages women from showing their intelligence, two problems arise. Not only are women's abilities hidden, but bright women are literally hidden from one another.

"Yes, you're bright, but shut up. You talk too much. I was very clearly taught that in order to be accepted, you had to keep the lid on about how bright you were." These words were spoken by Sally, one of the participants in my study of gifted women. The study was designed to investigate women's reflections concerning their childhood gifted label. The study focus was twofold: whether the participants felt giftedness was a positive, negative, or mixed influence on their lives and how their achievements were affected by their giftedness. Gifted labeling, gifted women, and women's achievements provided the literature contexts. The study subjects were 34 college-educated women between the ages of 30-50, who had participated in school gifted programs as children.

Overwhelmingly, participants shared the view that being identified as gifted was a positive experience in their lives. They found it a motivator to do well in school. Even beyond school, it was still a part of their identity. Negative effects focused on external social issues, such as feeling separate or isolated.

Study results lead to the conclusion that although being identified as gifted did help the participants as young women in that it gave them internal feelings of competence and confidence, there seemed to be no apparent link between being labeled gifted and career aspirations and achievements. Once their education was completed, there was no, or little, external encouragement, support, or guidance to become high achievers in the professional field. This study formed the basis for my book, Where Have All the Smart Women Gone? Though the study I conducted was about gifted women, I believe the themes in their lives overlap with most women, whether or not they are seen by others as gifted. (In addition, the women in the study spoke of giftedness in broad terms, not just in brightness or ability to do well in school. They included the nurturance of one's children and family and the joy of accomplishment from the pursuit of a career that still allows time for a satisfying personal life.) My hunch is that women in leadership positions, or who aspire to them, will find at least some of these themes to be VERY familiar.

A Country Called Double Bind

The Land of Lost Dreams

Where have all the smart women gone? They went to a Country called Double Bind. This is not a literal country, but a place many of us understand on a deep level, because we have been there ourselves. The Country of Double Bind is a symbol for the dilemmas that women find themselves in, especially if they happen to be smart and competent. In this country are four lands. The first is the Land of Lost Dreams. On the edge of this land is a place called Miss Invincible. Most of the women in the study believed they could achieve anything.

        I was taught I could do anything I wanted to do." (Anne)

        I felt like there wasn't anything I couldn't do. Everything was out
        there. (Roxanne)

They had a strong message they could do anything, but did they? Not necessarily. One reason for this ironic twist: they faced that double bind. They were told they could do anything in the classroom, but beyond that, the message was often, "Well, of course you can't do THAT."

            When Sputnik went up, they put me in Math Analysis and Physics
            and Chemistry to groom me. But when I wanted to be an astronaut,
            I was told, 'You can't apply.' (Brenda)

Many women felt a lack of role models. Ruth, a nurse, said:

            Whatever I did, I did well, but if I had to point to something that
            kept me from trying out a different career, I think it would be
            the lack of female role models. I didn't see in front of me what
            the possibilities were.

Anne, also a nurse, could not picture herself in the career she had in mind originally, partly because she saw no women entering that field:

        I wanted to be a nuclear engineer when I started high school,
        but I couldn't see myself doing that. I couldn't imagine myself
        in a tie and wing-tipped shoes.

The Land of Sexism

In addition to a lack of female role models, a related reason for not achieving one's dreams is cultural sexism. This is the Land of Sexism, located next to the Land of Lost Dreams. In various ways, both subtle and direct, our culture discourages women from expressing their intelligence. Many of the women in the study faced gender role expectations. The following comment by Brenda is a powerful testament to the conflict involved in being a woman and being bright:

            I was never told it was okay to be a girl. My dad raised me like a
            boy because I had the intelligence. For me, there was a loss of
            femininity, the whole side of me that made me a woman. Now I've
            had to go back over that part, telling myself it's okay to be a girl.

The Land of Dumbing Down

The third land I call Dumbing Down. Many of the women in the study hid their brightness in order to fit in. Even though these women knew they were bright, they found it hard to celebrate their brightness.

        I tried not to look different, not to look smart, not to be interested
        in other things people weren't interested in. (Mary)
        I played stupid, so nobody would know that I was different. (Hope)

This theme concerns the double bind smart women face: they are expected to behave one way because they are smart, and another because they are women. A few women in my study hid their giftedness so completely they could never acknowledge that trait, even to themselves, until adulthood. Women have long bent to the cultural message that it is unfeminine to be bright. Many women fear they will be rejected socially or be considered unfeminine if they appear to be too bright or too competent. Many women in leadership positions well understand this issue.

The Land of No Cracks Allowed

Even though the women in my study hid their intelligence at times, they still achieved academic success. However, later in their lives, when success didn't come as easily, failure hit hard and deep. This is the fourth land: No Cracks Allowed. Dealing with failure wasn't easy. Neither was asking for help in those hard times, and it was often misunderstood.

If I don't succeed the first time, it's a failure. (Joy)In my life, I'm the one who makes everything okay for otherpeople. I'm the one who's in control, who problem-solves.The question is, 'When I need help where do I go?' Nobodyknows how to nurture me, to help me. Because when I'mnot in control, they all go, 'Holy moley, where did that comefrom?' (Anne)When I needed help everybody said, 'Are you kidding? You'restrong, you're confident, you're outgoing.' (Bobbi)

Are we doomed to stay in the Country called Double Bind? Of course not, It's a country many of us have to travel through, on our way to other lands.There is a tale about a little boy who bragged to his mother that Tarzan conquered all the jungle animals, even the mighty lion. The child's mother replied, "My son, you will hear a different story when the lion learns to write." Like the lion, we women need to write our own stories, expressing our individual gifts to the world--especially if leadership is one of those gifts. We need to discover, speak and live our own truths. One of the best ways to leave the Country called Double Bind is to use the passport that each of us has been given. Our passport, in this case, is the parcel of gifts and talents that each of us owns. When we show this passport, we will be able to pass into the Country called Celebration.

Book Review:

Women as School Executives: Voices and Visions
Beverly J. Irby, Ed.D., and Genevieve Brown, Ed.D., editors
Texas Council of Women School Executives
Huntsville, Texas: Sam Houston Press, 1995, 203 pp. $10.00

The publication of the Texas Council of Women School Executives (TCWSE), Women as School Executives: Voices and Visions, edited by Beverly J. Irby and Genevieve Brown, explores the paradigm shift of women in executive roles in school administration. The editors have pointed to the changing landscape of leadership and found that inclusiveness is necessary in the educational work place and will enrich the fabric of the education of young people in America.

This book was written for a broad audience of educators and educational policy makers. It is straight-forward and comprehensive in analyzing feminine leadership, and it examines hypotheses and provides a focus for moving forward in the area of gender inclusiveness. Irby and Brown present us with much to reflect upon if we seek an agenda for critical inquiry and substantive change in the structure of education involving women as executives.

Women as School Executives: Voices andVisions consists of 41 authors, men and women, contributing 32 chapters which explore the concerns and trials of leadership from an array of varied experiences. These authors' experiences cover elementary school principalship, superintendency, central office coordination of various programs, service center education specialization, and university administration.

The editors group the chapters into seven sections: voices from history, voices from the field, voices of power, voices of transformation, visions of power, visions for purpose, and visions for reflection. "Voices from History" examines the politics of gender relative to a span of more than 100 years. This section raises questions about needed information regarding how women compare as leaders, the lack of data about the number of women in leadership, and the shortage of research related to gender communication patterns. Yet a discernment of these domains could serve the female leader well. "Voices from the Field" takes the perspective of leaders who are "out there" while examining attitudes towards their leadership and communication styles and the perceptions of how the feminine image affects the placement of women in powerful positions. "Voices of Power" analyzes the unique problems of women in the male-oriented culture of public schools and universities with emphasis on women of color.

"Voices of Transformation" observes the particular ways that the feminine leader, through adaptive leadership styles, can contribute to administrative teams in these times of change. "Visions of Power" presents strategies for dealing with power structures and for valuing the skills of networking, communicating, and collaborating. Also examined are the unique strengths that women have in managing site-based decision teams. "Visions of Purpose" gives hope, as well as concrete ideas to women seeking executive positions. Investigated are equity issues and gender differences in regard to communication and leadership styles in school administration.

Valuable insights and tips for obtaining and keeping a superintendent's position are included. "Visions for Reflection" ponders the transitional decisions women are faced with when charting career paths. Articles in this section relate to developing an administrative portfolio and overcoming barriers women face and would be beneficial to the professional seeking career change or enhancement.

The articles are research based and contribute greatly to the literature concerning women in executive roles. Many current studies are reported in this book on subjects such as comparisons of leadership styles, attitudes toward women administrators among school board members, perceptions of parent involvement, and challenges for women of color.

Among these pages any young professional will find sound advice for mapping career moves, and balancing family and career, and he/she will develop an understanding of the history and future of women in leadership. Though the articles reveal that women have not advanced as much as might be thought, hope and direction can be gleaned from this book.

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