Where are they now? Twenty years later researchers report on career, life choices of students from 1980 study on gender differences in math ability

December 19, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Twenty years after finding that gifted boys are better at math reasoning than gifted girls, a follow-up study of these same gifted and talented students - now in their 30s - indicates these earlier differences continue to influence their education and career choices. The follow-up study, published in the November 2000 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, shows that the women -- first tested as 12- to 14-year-olds - chose careers in which they could work with people and were less engaged in the physical sciences and engineering than their male counterparts, according to Camilla Benbow, lead author of the study and dean of Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of education and human development. Other findings of the long-term study of gifted and talented students, showed:

· The participants attained high academic achievement, with more than 90 percent earning bachelor's degrees and 25 percent earning doctorates (25 times the national average).
· Both men and women felt equally good about themselves, their careers and their academic achievements despite the fact that, on average, men earned higher incomes but worked longer hours.
· Men as a group primarily chose physical sciences and engineering careers, while women more often chose careers in the medical arts and biological sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities.
· Men placed greater importance on attaining career success, while women aspired to more balanced lives when it came to career, family and friends.

In addition, the study examined ways to meet the academic needs of intellectually gifted students. Only students who had participated in accelerated classes were asked about the role such classes play in future success. On average both men and women saw faster paced classes as helpful for educational and career planning, and having little impact on the ability to form friendships.

All the participants were asked whether they favored eliminating the grouping of students according to their abilities and skills, as in reading groups and honors or Advanced Placement classes. Eighty percent of the participants said they did not support the elimination of such groupings.

Benbow, as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, co-authored a December 1980 article published in Science that presented data seen to challenge the popular notion that socialization alone caused sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability.

The idea, popular in 1980, was that because "girls are not socialized to study math as extensively as boys" they do not score as well on math achievement tests, she said. "No other explanations were necessary. That did not square well with our data."

Since the 1980 article, well over a million seventh- and eight-graders have taken the SAT or ACT (normally taken by 11th and 12th graders) through annual talent searches, and the sex differences in mathematical reasoning have persisted and are still evident today.

"Yet gifted middle school boys and girls have received essentially the same formal instruction in mathematics and they like math equally," said David Lubinski, Vanderbilt associate professor of psychology and human development, a co-author of the follow-up study.

Subsequent work has shown, according to Benbow, that students with intellectual profiles that are tilted toward a particular area tend to gravitate toward that area of strength. The tilt in the math and physical sciences direction is especially pronounced for men. While women are tilted more toward the humanities than men, the tilt is not as pronounced.

"These findings have implications for higher education and expectations for equal representation of men and women across careers. If we afford these students a variety of academic opportunities, are supportive and do encourage them to explore the things they do well, irrespective of sex, our data suggests that gifted males and females will make different choices. They will achieve at the same level but in different areas. If these patterns continue, it may be unrealistic, for example, to expect to have a 50-50 ratio of men and women in engineering programs at universities. Maybe there might always be more men who are computer scientists than women," Benbow said.

"I think it will be interesting to see where these people are in another 20 years, " said Benbow, who plans to continue her study of the same students for another 20 years or more. "Will their life priorities change? Will they continue in the same career tracks? Will men and women follow similar paths or will their careers unfold in different patterns? No one knows because women have not had the opportunity to travel high level career paths in great numbers."

Benbow and Lubinski were joined in the latest study by Vanderbilt graduate student Dan Shea and Dr. Hossain Eftekhari-Sanjani from Iowa State. The team followed up on research cited in the 1980 article by Benbow and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. The 9,927 intellectually gifted junior high school students involved in the initial study were chosen based on standardized test scores on the math and verbal portions of the SAT designed for juniors and seniors in high school. The test scores revealed sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability favoring boys, with boys greatly over represented among the top scorers.

In the 20-year follow-up, the researchers sent questionnaires to 2,752 of the students from the original study. They received responses from 840 men and 503 women, from Cohort 1 of the original study, a group of intellectually gifted students identified during 1972-74, and from 403 men and 189 women from Cohort 2, a group of intellectually gifted students identified during 1976-79, for a total of 1,975 respondents.
*Editors Note: For a copy of the full study, please contact Princine Lewis in the Vanderbilt News Service at (615) 322-2706 or at princine.l.lewis@vanderbilt.edu.

Peabody http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/peabody/
American Psychological Society http://www.psychologicalscience.org/
Psychological Science http://www.psychologicalscience.org/newsresearch/publications/journals/psychsci.html

Vanderbilt University

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