Gifted Education

Empower Gifted Girls

Do gifted girls have different needs from gifted boys? In this article published at Deccan Herald, I explore the intersection of sex, intelligence, and educational needs.

Article originally published at Deccan Herald.

BACKGROUND: This is one of a series of articles I wrote some years ago while working as Research Associate on a project for Gifted Education at NIAS, Bangalore. The articles were part of our media outreach programme, which we undertook when we realised that there’s a lot of resistance in India to the ideas that: (a) some children are gifted, and that (b) they need gifted education — just as special-needs children needs special education. If you’ve ever watched a gifted child in a mainstream classroom, you’ve likely observed boredom, frustration, or acting up — in fact, in India, it is often as a “problem child” that a gifted child first draws his/her teacher’s attention. The need for special education for gifted children is starkly obvious.


Generations of men believed women were less intelligent, thus justifying patriarchal societies and the exclusion of women from public life and most of the professions. Claims that women are less intelligent have been based on things like brain size – it is a fact that even adjusting for body size, women have smaller brains. So what? Einstein’s brain was below-average in size. Brain size alone does not determine intelligence.

It is now politically incorrect to claim that women are less intelligent in general. Still, the debate on gender differences continues. One popular generalisation is, “Women excel at language, men excel at maths / physical science.”  Meta-analytical research with standardised scores often show that gender differences are either nonexistent (statistically insignificant) or very small. Where they do find gender differences, those are usually attributed to environmental factors.

The one consistent difference, research finds is related to variance. In variables ranging from criminality and disability to giftedness, boys vary more widely than girls. There are more boys than girls who have extremely low intelligence; there are also more boys than girls who have extremely high intelligence. In other words, statistical outliers tend to be male.

But this describes the extreme ends of the normal probability curve – the vast majority of boys overlap with the vast majority of girls in most variables, including intelligence. If we are talking about giftedness at a cutoff of one percent of the population, we would still expect approximately equal number of boys and girls. Overall, there is every reason to expect that rates of giftedness will be equal in girls and boys, and in specific subjects.

Academic performance
Girls and boys do differ in their academic performance. Many of these differences actually favour girls. Girls out-perform boys in school as well as on many standardised exams, and they’re usually viewed as better students. 

What about gifted girls?
Do gifted girls behave differently, especially in the classroom? Do they fit in better? Go underground? Are they less assertive? Less visible?

Girls are also treated differently from boys in the classroom.  Research in the west suggests that teachers view boys as more problematic, more restless, more prone to problem behaviours, and needing more individual attention.  Girls are viewed as more mature, more independent learners, and therefore needing less attention.  Beginning from preschool, teachers give boys more time and attention than girls.  Teachers also give boys more detailed feedback on their tasks or answers; and girls receive blanket comments (‘good’ or ‘wrong’). These findings are from western contexts, but they are likely to hold true for India, as well.  Our field research confirms that for various reasons, gifted girls are more difficult to identify than gifted boys in the classroom. Does this mean there are fewer gifted girls? No, it means that we need more varied, more sophisticated, or more sensitive measures to identify gifted girls.

Gender roles

Are gender differences biological or social? Before we make generalisations about ‘innate’ differences between boys and girls, we should be aware of differences in how we treat them. Gender roles consist of a society’s  beliefs, expectations, and norms for girls and boys. These include; “girls are well-behaved,” “girls don’t ask too many questions,” and “girls should choose a career that is not too demanding.”  These socio-cultural differences create stereotype threat; for example, a society that claims “girls are not good at maths,” may produce girls who have low self-efficacy (i.e. low belief in their ability to succeed) in maths, and thus actually end up performing more poorly in maths. 

Social / environmental factors may also affect girls’ and boys’ work-related values, such as how much girls value certain occupations (e.g. research) or professions (e.g. physical science), and how willing they will be to work for long hours.  Gender roles are so prevalent, and begin to operate on children’s attitudes and beliefs so early – that they become invisible and we risk incorrectly invoking biological, innate differences between boys and girls.

When identifying giftedness in girls, a lifespan perspective is important.  More girls and young women in India are now opting for demanding courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics); in many courses the gender ratio is equal.  However, women continue to be under-represented in STEM professions, especially in research and at higher managerial levels.  A large part of this problem is structural; India lacks structural support for full-time professional women (eg. extended maternity leave and childcare services).  Thus, the more demanding STEM positions remain unavailable to women.

Concerns of gifted girls

The literature has identified certain concerns of gifted girls.

n During early adolescence, many gifted girls show a decline in self-esteem. Dramatic changes in body and body image partly account for this. The increasing importance of gender roles also plays a role (e.g. the need to be attractive may conflict with the need to achieve). Most girls recover their self-esteem over the adolescent years.

n During late adolescence and the college years, a romantic orientation may detract from academic / career goals. Physical attractiveness becomes more important, and many girls may prioritise finding a prestigious mate over their own educational and career goals.
n Many girls lose direction in college. This is partly because parents shift their expectation from academic excellence to family-readiness. The awareness of limited options (see above) and mentors is also involved.

n Many gifted girls lack mentors and role models. Achievement is strongly linked to a child’s or young adult’s ability to locate and develop a strong relationship with a mentor, i.e an expert in the child’s interest area. Because there are fewer women in STEM at higher levels, gifted girls have a harder time identifying mentors than gifted boys.

For information on giftedness, visit the NIAS gifted education website at

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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