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Gifted education expert explores
dilemmas facing talented women
February 1, 1999
Why do some talented women achieve and gain eminence while others who had as much or more potential fail to achieve the dreams they had as young girls? Why do some gifted girls begin to underachieve in school and why do some women who excelled in school remain in unchallenging jobs?
In a new book, Sally Morgan Reis explores these questions and the different patterns of how females develop and use their talents, and examines the choices made by both girls and women across their life-spans.
At the heart of Work Left Undone, Choices & Compromises of Talented Females (Creative Learning Press, 1998) are numerous case histories documenting the choices and decisions talented women have made.
Reis's use of individual stories helps to make her own impressive research and the mountain of statistics and scientific studies she refers to in her book resonate with the reader and take on personal significance. Yet she also laments that little has been written in history books or otherwise about the obstacles faced by many talented women, that would enable gifted girls to learn how to plan and overcome difficulties that have hindered their mothers' and grandmothers' journeys toward their dreams and aspirations.
"We can only begin to fully understand the opportunities denied to girls and women by looking at the past," says Reis, a professor of educational psychology. "We must begin to listen more carefully to the lessons learned by older talented women and pass along their wisdom to a younger generation, or we will continue reinventing a feminist consciousness each generation."
A former teacher who grew frustrated watching her best female students' potential go unfulfilled, Reis has pursued a career studying the progress of gifted and talented students and the obstacles they face. Her book, she says, is the culmination of nearly 25 years of research she has conducted, ranging from recognizing talent in young girls to reviewing the achievements of older women.
The failure of contemporary society and its institutions to notice stereotyping and the resulting prejudices that work against smart young girls in their formative years is a dominant theme in Work Left Undone. In the first part of the book, Reis examines specific socio-cultural messages and barriers that contribute to underachievement and lower expectations in gifted and talented women.
She presents a massive amount of data from studies during the past three decades to make a convincing case that different and unequal conditions exist for males and females in our classrooms and work places. Males vocally dominate classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school and receive far more attention than do females. Gifted women receive mixed, often confusing, messages - even from loving parents. One of Reis's female graduate students complained: "My parents expected me to get good grades, but they expected my brother to be a doctor."
Similarly the work place is not immune from gender stereotyping. Women are woefully absent from corporate leadership in this country. Reis cites studies of women who have become executives that blame "male stereotyping and preconceptions of women" and the exclusion of women from informal communication networks in business settings as the chief barriers to the corporate advancement of women.
The six chapters that comprise part two of Work Left Undone go to the essence of Reis's own research on gifted and talented women. The section begins with an exploration of the particular factors affecting gifted girls in elementary and secondary schools. Case studies provide poignant testimony, such as a gifted young woman's assessment of her K-12 school career: "I have been placed in many average classes, especially up until the junior high school level, in which I have been spit on, ostracized, and verbally abused for doing my homework on a regular basis, for raising my hand in class, and particularly for receiving outstanding grades."
The following chapters explore specific issues that face gifted females in math and science ("girls are not expected to succeed in these areas"), and from culturally diverse and low socioeconomic circumstances. "How many African American, Native American, or Hispanic girls have the potential to become scientists, writers, artists, or musicians, but will not because they do not believe these goals to be within their reach?" she asks.
Other chapters speak to the particular conditions, problems and successes of women artists, women in conventional careers, and older American women who have achieved eminence after the age of 55.
For example, because women still assume the primary responsibility of family nurturer and caretaker, studies about older women who accomplish great things late in life suggest that women and men may have a different pattern of peak creative energies, Reis contends.
Reis supports the individual case studies she uses in the book with both research data and analysis, that builds page after page into an inescapable indictment of the status quo. But after amassing a compelling case about obstacles to both worldly success and personal fulfillment of gifted women throughout the book, she turns to solutions and recommendations in the final chapters of Work Left Undone.
Reis considers such critical issues as peer pressure, the internalized feelings females have about their accomplishments, and the negative impact that concern with physical appearance can have on gifted females. She outlines and describes programs and resources that are available to gifted young women. She considers the merits of women's colleges and single-sex classes, and suggests ways of helping gifted girls recognize that most women work outside their homes in their lifetimes.
In discussing the accomplishments of talented females, Reis emphasizes a crucial point that there is not one right or wrong way to use one's talents in life. She recounts the story of a friend who halted her promising career as a sculptress to raise her children. "Were her talents wasted? Or were they instead, focused on unconditional support for her children's interests and talents. How do we frame a discussion about accomplishments for women like her?" she asks.
"As long as women continue to feel frustrated about opportunities denied because of their gender, or the absence of time for female talent development, we must continue to discuss these issues and society must respond," Reis says. "Why? Because we all benefit from a better distribution of talented women in all fields."