At first glance—and numerous subsequent ones—the folks in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) certainly seem extraordinary.
Researchers chose study participants by giving junior high schoolers the SAT, a test designed for college-bound high-school students. For the vast majority of the kids, the math section would have included disciplines they had never even heard of: algebra, geometry, trigonometry. Researchers recruited only kids who scored among the top 1 percent in the U.S. in math. And as graphically illustrated in this February's Scientific American,those former whiz kids, the oldest of whom are now in their 50s, are doing great. They earn more money, garner more patents and are up to 20 times more likely to have a doctorate than the general U.S. population. On average, they report being highly satisfied with their lives. Yet in one major way they seem much like everyone else—there's a gender divide when it comes to jobs and attitudes toward work. The men are most likely to be in leadership positions and math-intensive jobs, whereas the women are more likely to be in health sciences or nonscience professions. Plus, when surveyed, the women were disproportionately likely to say they cared about flexibility in their jobs whereas men valued salary.
The potentially disappointing divide, described in a recent analysis by psychologists David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow and Harrison Kell at Vanderbilt University, mirrors what researchers have seen in studies of other highly educated folks. "The only thing surprising in the data is how much the data from these absolutely brilliant women look like data from any group of high-achieving women in general," says Diane Halpern, the dean of social sciences at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute in California. "You think it might be different with this group of incredibly gifted women, but it's not."
The SMPY, started in 1971 was originally just about prodding promising kids. The study's founder, Johns Hopkins University psychologist Julian Stanley, saw high-scoring kids as national resource—America's future leaders and problem solvers. With Stanley’s help, for instance, some of his study participants received certificates to take college classes for free, while they were children. Their lifelong successes could be said to stem from some combination of his interventions and whatever it was they had in them when they sat for the SAT at ages 11 through 13.
If that were entirely the case, however, the following distinctions might not have fallen out of the data in a purely meritocratic world. Male study participants, Lubinski’s team found, were most likely to be chief executives; to work in information technology careers; or in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. Female participants were disproportionately represented in the health sciences, K–12 education and the arts. When asked about what was important to them about a job, women were more likely than men to say they wanted fewer working hours and flexibility whereas men were more likely to say they wanted higher pay and the freedom to take risks. There were plenty of overlaps—female executives, men who wanted flexibility—but the gender divide as a trend represented statistically significant differences.
In addition, although both male and female participants who worked full time had median salaries of $100,000 or more, married men earned, on average, an order of magnitude more than their spouses. Conversely, married women earned slightly less than their spouses.
So what does it mean when even extraordinarily gifted women seem to work less and to commit less fully to STEM careers? Is this a problem? For instance, Lubinski points out both women and men in his study report being happy. "They did equally well in terms of their satisfaction with life, their satisfaction with relationships and their satisfaction with their careers," he says. Plus, many top jobs outside of STEM use a lot of math. "The need for mathematical ability is becoming much more generalized in our society."
Still, it doesn't necessarily follow that these outcomes are the result of pure preference—or that societies shouldn't aim for gender parity. Many reasons could explain why highly gifted men and women tend to choose different jobs. They might naturally like different things but they also may be responding to gender roles they were taught as kids or to other constraints they've met in life. "I can't tell, as a researcher, if this is a choice without constraints," says Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas who recently published a controversial paper about women in math-intensive careers. Among that paper's conclusions: once women with math-intensive doctorates enter the professional academic world, they're as likely as men to stay in their jobs and get promotions. During college, however, women are much less likely to start on a math-intensive path.
One common theme from research on women's and men's different career choices is that among heterosexual couples with children, women tend to do most of the child-rearing, which affects how many hours they can work and what jobs they can have. Whether they choose to do so happily is another question.
Most of the people in the SMPY say they're satisfied with their lives, which is important. Yet that's not an ironclad argument against change, either. Many psychologists think people have a happiness set point and adapt to their life circumstances. Is this acceptance ideal? "Just because men and women are satisfied, I don't think that means we can just ignore the institutional and societal barriers that lead to these gender differences," says Susan Nolan, a psychologist at Seton Hall University.
Whether societies should prod otherwise satisfied, highly capable women toward more math-intensive careers is a "philosophical" question, not a scientific one, Halpern thinks. It's her opinion they should. "In my thinking," she says, "if many more women would enter these math and science fields, they would change the nature of the field and make a different contribution to society"—because of differences in women's interests within science fields, the innate-versus-developed causes of which are, again, difficult for now to tease out.