Findings 1: Ideas about smart girls in the past 

Women can acquire a knowledge of anything through hard work. But the celestial fire that emblazons and ignites the soul, the inspiration that consumes and devours…are always lacking in women (Jean-Jaques Rousseau, 1758)

This research set out to explore stories, images and issues surrounding ‘smart’ girls. The word ‘smart’ is often used in popular settings like TV and film to describe high ability or cleverness, while schools tend to use  ‘gifted and  talented’. These terms are imported from American usage but have become common in England

To understand more about ideas surrounding achieving girls and where they come from I began by looking at historical ideas about high ability

In the past, people tended to discuss ‘genius’ rather than high ability, ‘giftedness’ or being ‘smart’.  Someone’s  ‘ability’ was never measured in the way that schools test students today. Instead, they looked at adult achievements and tried to understand what made it possible for people to produce them.

I discovered three key historical models of high ability or genius. These have been important to my understanding of how today’s achieving girls—and boys—are thought about. The three models are:

Model 1: The natural or innate genius whose talent is a kind of irresistible spark that cannot fail to emerge whatever the circumstances. People believed this came from divine inspiration or from your genes, depending on the historical period.


Divinely inspired genius

Model 2: The hard-working or practised genius who achieves highly through motivation and dedication, and an awful lot of practice


Hard-working Genius

Model 3:  The collaborative genius who achieves highly because of the support and input offered by others, or whose work depends on more than one individual’s effort or ability, and often builds on previous work/knowledge


Collaborative Genius

Of these, the first is the most highly valued in society, both in the past and the present. Natural genius is also the most likely to be seen as male.

Although hard work is valued in itself it is a lesser model of genius (sometimes described as the ‘boring’ or workaholic’ model). The idea of girls’ achievements  being produced through hard work rather than ‘natural’ brilliance is quite common – eg in explanations of girls’ superior performance in exams.

The idea of the collaborative or group genius is quite a recent one. Some researchers argue that because of this, the contributions of ordinary working people and of women have been overlooked.

These ideas appear in different ways through history, and can still be found today in schools: For example, in today’s ideas about boys being better at exams because they have a natural ‘spark’ that means they can pull success out of a hat even if they have not worked steadily, whereas girls are said to do better at coursework because they are conscientious. Girls’ achievement is more likely to be seen as the result of the help and support of others like parents or teachers. Group work is sometimes said to favour girls’ preference for learning and communicating with others

Problems with history: who gets left out

One problem I encountered was the fact that the ‘proof’ of smartness is traditionally associated with success in areas that often excluded women and girls, black and minority ethnic people, and poorer people. If you weren’t a rich, white man the chances of you developing your genius in areas such as philosophy, science, music, art, or public life and politics were pretty minimal.

This is particularly important for Model 1, because if genius is seen as something that will always come out whatever the circumstances, then failure to achieve fame must mean lack of ability. It didn’t take into account  that some people did not have the same chance to shine. This view of genius led to a lot of pretty awful ideas about whole populations being ‘infererior’ because of their gender, class or ethnicity.

Ideas about achieving through effort alone (Model 2) are also important because they imply that lack of ability can be overcome by hard work, so individuals who do not achieve are seen as to blame for their own failure whatever their circumstances.

The ‘caring sharing’ smart girl

The last historical finding that I want to share concerns ways in which philosophy and science have been used in different ways through history to ‘prove’ that girls and women are differently intelligent to boys and men. This difference almost never works in girls’ favour, but always places them in a lesser position.

Through the ages the talents of women are found to be better suited to helping others to achieve rather than achieving themselves. Girls and women are seen as ‘naturally’ more, nurturing and connected, while boys and men are ‘naturally’ more independent and ambitious.

The latest version of some of these ideas can be seen in some ways complex neuroscience findings are translated into over-simplified claims about boys’ and girls’ learning differences

Looking at the history of ideas about gender and genius helped me to understand some differences in the ways successful girls and successful boys are viewed today, and also how girls identified as ‘smart’ can see themselves.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you think genius is mostly inspiration (inborn), perspiration (effort) or collaboration (a group effort)?
  • Why do you think innate genius tends to be the most highly valued?
  • Do you think boys and girls are differently intelligent?
  • Why do you think collaborative achievement is more likely to be associated with girls?
  • How might you go about researching ideas about gender and achievement in your school?

*Please email me if you would like an list of some key works consulted in this part of the study