Internal Barriers, Personal Issues & Decisions Faced by Gifted and Talented Females

Sally M. Reis

It is obvious that the values of women differ very often
from the values which have been made by the other sex.
Yet, it is the masculine values that prevail.
-Virginia Woolf

Research on talented females indicates a number of internal barriers, personal priorities, and decisions as the reasons that many either cannot or do not realize their potential (Reis 1998). Of course, not all gifted women experience the same dilemmas and decisions, but common trends are found in research on this population These barriers, personal priorities, and decisions, identified in research conducted with girls and women at various ages, stages across the lifespan and in a variety of occupations (Reis, 1998), include dilemmas about abilities and talents, personal decisions about family, and decisions about duty and caring (putting the needs of others first) as opposed to nurturing personal, religious, and social issues (Arnold, 1995; Bell, 1989).

Internal Barriers, Personal Priorities & Decisions

Consistent trends found in interviews with many young gifted women indicate that they grow up believing that they do not face the barriers that their mothers and grandmothers encountered (Reis, 1998). As they grow older, many begin to understand and encounter both internal and external barriers (Reis, 1998). When and how do women understand barriers that affect achievement? Hollinger and Fleming (1984) found no sign of recognition of internal barriers affecting accomplishment in women in 29% of the 284 gifted adolescents they studied. More recent research (Reis, 1998) indicates, however, that the conflicts and barriers become more apparent as gifted girls mature and face decisions relating to marriage, career, and children, usually at critical junctures in their lives. In fact, the intersection of these factors-ability, age, career choice, and personal decisions relating to marriage and children-may result in additional internal barriers.

Talented young girls often believe they can achieve all of their dreams and then encounter both subtle messages and the reality of difficult choices later in their lives. Some talented women begin to believe that being ambitious and developing their own talents may be considered selfish.

Gilligan’s Concept of a Different Ethic of Caring

Many talented and gifted girls and women face a dilemma of how to put their own talents first when their entire lives had been based upon the importance of relationships and the tacit understanding that women put others first. According to Gilligan (1982), women not only define themselves in a context of human relationships, but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care for others. Historically, women have nurtured, taken care of, and helped their children and spouses, and developed networks of vital relationships. Women may be more concerned than men about relationships and their need for interdependent relationships. Most talented women Reis (1998) studied understood that if they placed an emphasis on developing their own talents, those they loved would be affected in some way. Many gifted women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s experience guilt over what they want to do for themselves and what they believe they should do for their families and for those they love. Most struggle with finding time to do their own work and often compromise by putting their work off until family obligations were fulfilled. As a result, they often have little time left for their own creative work. A talented artist or writer explained that she can work only:

. . . when my life is in order, the kids are happy, dinner is cooking, the house is clean, the laundry is caught up, and there’s a semblance of calm in the household, it just seems like ideas flow. I can sit down and write poetry just like that. I can sit at the computer and turn out two or three pages of a screenplay (Kirschenbaum and Reis, 1997, p. 261).

Creation of a Sense of Self and a Feminine Identity

One of the older talented women interviewed by Reis (1998) eloquently explained her search to find herself:

I was never called by my own name until my husband died. As a young girl, I was always Arthur’s daughter. When I married, I was Charlie’s wife. When I had children, I was Sarah and David’s mother. It was only after my children grew up and my husband died, that I was called by my own name. I realized I had lost my sense of self as a young girl, and only regained it as an older woman.

Most young girls in elementary and middle school begin to learn who they are in high school and college, only to have their sense of self waiver if they become involved in relationships. Reis (1998) found that gifted women who marry in their late 20s or early 30s are able to establish a stronger sense of self and are more often able to maintain their understanding of and belief in self than if they marry earlier. An understanding and belief in self is considered necessary to the realization of one’s talents (Reis, 1995a).

The Development of Resilience

Theories about resilience attempt to explain achievement among those who are subjected to negative psychological and environmental situations. Rutter (1987) defined resilience as “the positive pole of individual differences in people’s response to stress and adversity” (p. 316). Resilience is not a fixed attribute in individuals. Also, the successful negotiation of psychological risks at one point in a person’s life does not guarantee that the individual will react positively to other stresses when situations change. Some talented women use successful resilience strategies and achieve, while others of similar ability who faced similar problems do not. Talented female artists, scientists, authors, politicians, activists, and scholars who took control of their own learning were characterized by determination, insight, independence, initiative, humor, creativity, and resilience (Reis, 1998).

Several factors contribute to the development of resilience. Strong family and relationship ties, friendships with other women and men, love of work, and a passion to continue doing what they love were all attributes of the resilient, gifted females studied by Reis (1998). The realization that defeat sometimes provided an opportunity for learning to occur also contributed to developing resilience. A prominent college president, explained that she is constantly criticized by faculty, students, and the press, and that she understood that this criticism was a “part of the territory” when she accepted the position. She also regarded criticism as the predecessor to positive action (Reis, 1998).

Fear of Success

Some researchers believe that the “fear of success” syndrome first introduced by Matina Horner (1972) may be a key factor in understanding the problems facing gifted women. Fear of success may cause some females to believe that they will be rejected by their peers or that they will appear undesirable to the opposite sex if they are too competent or successful. Horner explained that many capable young women change their plans to accommodate a less ambitious, more traditionally feminine role.

Fear of success may lead to a change in confidence in one’s ability and can have devastating effects if it occurs during college or graduate school. Results in a study of high school valedictorians by Arnold (1995) found that female students who had done well in high school lost confidence in their ability after a few years of college. In their second year of college, the female valedictorians lowered their assessments of their intelligence. This loss of self-confidence may negatively influence the rest of a young woman’s life if it causes changes in college plans, goals for graduate study, or choice of partner or career.

Absence of Planning or Poor Planning

Another issue that may affect young talented females is their inability to plan for the future in a realistic way. Many young women ignore or are unaware of the economic reality that most will have to work their entire lives to support themselves and/or their families. Because some women do not learn to plan, they often have not thought about how they might juggle a marriage, career, family, graduate school, and/or advanced study. Some talented girls studied by Reis (1998) had unrealistic beliefs that they could go through college and graduate school, begin a career, and then interrupt that career to marry and have children without consequence to their career choices and professional advancement. In 1891, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in Women and Economics, “Where young boys plan for what they will achieve and attain, young women plan for whom they will achieve and attain.” Planning for one’s education and personal dreams can provide the necessary tools to enable talented girls and women to have choices, as well as to understand the ramifications of decisions to discontinue an education or change a career plan because of a relationship.

Hiding and Doubting Abilities

Buescher and his associates (1987) studied gifted adolescent boys and girls and found that while 15% of boys hide their ability in school, 65% of girls consistently hide their talents. Reis (1998) found that gifted girls do not want to be considered different from their friends and same-age peers. For many gifted girls, however, the problem becomes more difficult as they become women and their talents and gifts set them apart from their peers and friends. If the school environment is one in which academics take a back seat to athletics or other activities, the issue may be exacerbated. Learning why females mask or hide their ability is often critical to addressing the problem, and finding environments in which success is celebrated and individual differences are respected is crucial in helping females to resolve this issue.

In addition to hiding abilities, some gifted and talented women begin to doubt that they have abilities. In a study of female graduates who attended a school for gifted students for five decades, Walker, Reis, and Leonard (1992) found that three out of four women did not believe they had superior intelligence. If women do not recognize their potential, they often do not fulfill it. In this study, it was found that these gifted women selected mediocre and gender stereotypic jobs, usually due to pressure from parents and teachers.

The Impostor Syndrome

A related issue occurs when females achieve high levels of success-labeled by Clance and Imes (1978; Clance, 1985) as the “Great Impostor Syndrome.” This syndrome describes a low sense of self-esteem occurring when females attribute their successes to factors other than their own efforts and see their outward image of a bright successful achiever as being undeserved or accidental. “I was lucky,” “I was in the right place at the right time,” “I really didn’t do as well as it seems,” and “I had a lot of help” are all statements made by talented females who are complimented on their successes.

Talented females may attribute their successes to effort or external factors such as luck, while failures are explained as internal faults or as an absence of certain abilities. Weiner (1986) has found that suchattributions may influence emotions, self-concepts and subsequent behaviors. Arnold’s (1995) research with high school valedictorians found that by the second year of college, over a quarter of the female high school valedictorians she studied had lowered their self-rankings of their intelligence, indicating that they were merely average in intelligence. This phenomenon did not occur with the male valedictorians whose self-rankings remained consistent or improved. These women continued this pattern at graduation from college. None of the women placed herself in the highest category of intelligence while men, in sharp contrast, steadily increased their self-ratings (p. 106).

Some talented women begin to believe that they have accomplished success because they have fooled other people or have been successful due to external factors such as the right mentor or an act of chance. In some cases, this feeling has occurred because talented girls and women can often accomplish a great deal without the sustained effort often required from their less capable peers. If ability is high and less effort is warranted, many women begin to feel that they are lucky rather than academically gifted.

Effort and ability are internally perceived causes, according to attribution theory (Weiner, 1986), and understanding the relationship between them is important. Many high achieving students tend to attribute their successes to a combination of ability and effort and their failures to lack of effort. On the other hand, some individuals who accept their own failure often attribute their successes to external factors such as luck and their failures to lack of ability. As children approach adolescence, they begin making a distinction between effort and ability, and gender differences emerge. The academic self-efficacy of young males is enhanced based on their belief in their ability; during failures, they attribute failure to lack of effort. The same does not appear to be true for young females. Girls may accept responsibility for failure but not for success. Researchers believe that although girls may perceive themselves to be bright, they interpret any failure quite negatively, believing that it is caused by lack of ability (Dweck, 1986).

Developing a strong belief in one’s ability in the elementary and middle school years is important because “by the end of elementary school, children’s [perceptions] . . . of ability begin to exert an influence on achievement processes independent of any objective measures of ability” (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988, p. 521). Many gifted adolescent girls believe that possessing high ability means that they will achieve excellent grades without effort. Students often believe that if they must work hard, they lack ability (Dweck, 1986). During adolescence, talented girls may move from self-confidence to self-consciousness and often have doubts about their ability (Reis, 1998).

Teachers’ feedback about work is a better predictor for children’s self perceptions of their ability and effort than are other types of interactions with teachers or with peers (Pintrich & Blumenfeld, 1985, p. 654). Siegle and Reis (1998) found that teachers still rate adolescent gifted females higher than gifted males on effort. Schunk (1984) found that children who initially receive feedback complimenting their ability, rather than their effort, developed higher ability attribution, self-efficacy, and skills. This finding indicates that parents and teachers should praise girls for their ability, thereby helping them understand that they have ability.


Perfectionism may be regarded as both a positive and negative influence in one’s life. Hamachek (1978) viewed perfectionism as a manner of thinking about behavior and described two different types of perfectionism, normal and neurotic, that form a continuum of perfectionist behaviors. Normal perfectionists derive pleasure from the labors of effort and feel free to be less precise as the situation permits. Neurotic perfectionists are unable to feel satisfaction because they never seem to do things well enough.

In a recent study on perfectionism in gifted adolescents in a middle school, Schuler (1997) found that perfectionism can be viewed as a continuum with behaviors ranging from healthy/normal to unhealthy/dysfunctional. Order and organization, support systems, and personal effort were the factors that affected the healthy perfectionists. All the healthy female perfectionists had been aware of their perfectionist tendencies since they were young, with their first memories related to school activities. Healthy female perfectionists were considered by their teachers and parents as responsible, cooperative, organized, considerate, and conscientious by their teachers. On the other hand, concern over mistakes, perceived parental expectations, and perceived parental criticisms were the salient factors for the gifted unhealthy/dysfunctional female perfectionists. They possessed a fixation about making mistakes that resulted in a high state of anxiety. Their definitions of perfectionism focused on never making any errors.

Criticism and Comparisons

From the earliest ages, as young as primary grades, girls have been found to lack confidence when compared to boys of the same age. Judith Bardwick (1972) found that girls who were as young as six lacked confidence and expected to fail when compared to boys of the same age who expected to achieve. “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” a study commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), that included a poll of 3,000 students in grades 4-10, found that as girls get older, their self-esteem drops dramatically. Enthusiastic and assertive at ages 8 and 9, they begin to lose confidence in their abilities at ages 13 and 14 and emerge from high school with measurably lowered goals. The same study indicated that the decrease in girls’ self-esteem is three times greater than boys’.

Arnold (1995) found that as female valedictorians got older, they lowered their self-rankings and seemed to have more doubts about their own abilities, despite receiving higher grades throughout college. Reis (1998) found insecurities in talented females at almost every age level, as they express doubt about their abilities, compare themselves more, and criticize themselves and others more. Unfortunately, this critical nature often extends to withholding support from other women. They also dislike any criticisms about their work or life (Roberts-Nolen-Hoeksema, 1994).

Others have also found that a lack of confidence in girls seems to increase with females who are more intelligent, and this complex pattern may continue into mid-life. Charmaine Gilbreath, a rocket scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, heads the electro-optics technology section. Her work involves shooting laser beams at rocket plumes to study reflected light and learn how particles in rocket fuel react with the atmosphere. After completing her first college degree in communications and humanities and deciding to become a lawyer, she changed her plans, deciding she liked physics and geometry. She recalled:

. . . it took me two years to get up the nerve to take a pre-calculus class. I was surprised that it wasn’t that hard. I aced it. Then I took physics and calculus courses, and they weren’t all that hard either. That’s when I first realized I’d been buffaloed. (Cole, 1994, pp. 58-59)

When she returned to school to get her degree in physics and engineering, she found her biggest obstacle was her own lack of self-confidence: “Girls think they have to always get As. If a girl gets a B or C, she thinks she can’t do it. But boys get Bs and Cs and go on to be scientists and engineers” (Cole, 1994, pp. 58-9).


In many interviews conducted by Reis (1998) with both older and younger talented females, they described their feelings of loneliness and betrayal by other women. When asked about friendships, a successful college president replied simply, “I have none.” The extremely limited time they have for friendships and the ambivalence of other women toward those who achieve at high levels are some of the reasons that talented women may have few friends and are often lonely. Successful women recounted situations in which their success was viewed negatively by both other women and men. Women who had successful careers often reported that they were pitted against women who stayed at home and worked to raise their families. Many talented women indicated that they learned to consciously hide their accomplishments from friends and families and often seem to feel guilty about being able to accomplish a great deal or worry that they will further erode friendships because their friends consistently drew comparisons.

Physical Attractiveness

Some physically attractive gifted females report their most challenging conflicts have been about personal issues and choices (Reis, 1998). Teenage girls who are considered attractive are sought after by young males, increasing the likelihood that they will have more decisions to make about relationships and, perhaps, more options to marry younger. They are also more sought after for friendships by other females. Girls who are considered less attractive by their male and female peers may have more time to pursue their own choices and can devote more attention to their academic work without facing some of the difficult issues about relationship. In research with high school and middle school girls, those considered more attractive were pressured by other students for dates, attention and relationships with both male and female peers. They had little time for introspection about careers, academic work and post-secondary educational opportunities (Reis & Diaz, 1999). Some very attractive talented young women report inventing boyfriends to give them an excuse not to date, allowing them more time to pursue their work in school and their own interests.

Holland and Eisenhart (1990), authors of Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement and College Culture, found similar results in their study of women in a southern university. Many of the women they studied viewed boyfriends as a source of prestige, and romantic relationships as positive, normal, and desirable. However, women in this study also admitted to having difficulty with achieving a balance between their romantic relationship, work, academic classes, and their peer involvement. Holland and Eisenhart found that contrary to popular belief, women who fell in love did not lower their ambitions because they fell in love. Rather, they lowered their ambitions and then they fell in love. Almost all the women studied by Holland and Eisenhart gradually experienced a decline in ambitions and aspirations, pointing again to the importance of planning for gifted girls across their lifespan.

So What Comes First? My Work or Those I Love?

The greatest conflict for talented women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s concerns the interaction between their career and personal lives. This intensely personal struggle to develop their personal talents while they also try to meet the needs of those they love causes gifted women the most conflict, guilt and pain. Constructing a personal and professional life for talented women is an intensely difficult change, and putting the needs of their partners ahead of their own needs is an ongoing personal decision that has not often been effectively reconciled in many women’s lives.


The accomplishments of some gifted females and the underachievement of others is a complex issue dependent upon many factors, including personal choices and decisions. Our current societal structure often eliminates the possibility that gifted females who marry and have children can achieve at a similar level as their male counterparts. Career decisions should be made only by talented women who have been exposed to the full range of options available to them.

Gifted young females should explore careers, further education, and plan and pursue professional opportunities that will challenge their intellect as well as fit into their personal plans for the future. Talented women should learn to assess and determine whether they are developing their own talent, and if they are not, they should learn to examine why and be proactive about what is required to help them to realize their potential.

The exploration and discussion of the personality issues and personal choices facing talented girls and women should be encouraged. Personality development is intricate and complex. What one young girl regards as an impossible obstacle may be regarded as an intriguing challenge by another. Exploring how and when they develop these characteristics will help all of us to better guide gifted females in their journeys through all stages in their lives.

General Recommendations to Help Gifted Females Address External Barriers

The following specific strategies have emerged from research discussed in this article for girls, families, parents, teachers, and counselors. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect that all these suggestions can be implemented, but starting with a few suggestions in each area is realistic goal for each group.

Gifted and Talented Girls Should:

  1. develop independence and intellectual risk-taking, as well as an understanding of sex-role stereotyping/cultural biases/gender prejudices and high social self-perception;
  2. become involve din leadership roles and extracurricular activities;
  3. question, speak out, and take action, and be encouraged to learn from mistakes and try again;
  4. participate in discussion about issues related to internal barriers, and defining success in supportive settings with other gifted girls;
  5. learn various communication styles and the value of planning for the future;
  6. delay becoming involved in romantic relationships until formal education is completed;
  7. find peers and friends who support their academic goals and help them identify interests;
  8. identify a dream for important work and develop a plan to make that dream come true.

Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Should:

  1. show sensitivity to the barriers that talented girls may face and the different nonverbal ways they may express themselves;
  2. understand some of the personal characteristics of talented females that may impede or reduce their success;
  3. encourage relationships with other creative and talented girls who want to achieve;
  4. create discussion groups with talented, creative girls to open communications about internal barriers discussed in this article;
  5. point out options for future careers and encourage future choices and help girls plan to focus on specific interests and potential careers;
  6. stress self-reliance, independence, creative training and creative problem solving and decision making;
  7. educate and raise males to assume equal partnerships in relationships and support the talent development of those they love;
  8. express a positive attitude about creativity and talents in girls in all areas and be a constant source of support, avoiding criticism as much as possible;
  9. encourage behaviors that show spirit, passion, resiliency, or anger, since some of these characteristics are essential to gifted adults and creative producers;
  10. foster a secure sense of self by helping talented girls understand and develop a belief in self and their talents and abilities.

Parents Should:

  1. help to develop and support their daughter’s academic and extracurricular interests and creative talents;
  2. develop independence and an inclination for creative action;
  3. encourage interests and refrain from making unreasonable demands about academic success;
  4. withhold criticism and never make fun or focus too much on appearance or weight-do not focus on their daughter’s appearance. As it sends negative messages about what is most important;
  5. encourage humor and positive risk taking;
  6. encourage their daughter’s decision making and allow their daughters to make her own decisions;
  7. encourage participation in sports or competitive events so that exposure can be provided about loss;
  8. encourage creative action across domains—arts, dance, science—and help daughters narrow interests as they mature.

Teachers Should:

  1. praise talented girls for ambition and ability as well as work ethic and effort;
  2. discuss some of the internal barriers facing talented girls as a way to address how these can be overcome;
  3. help creative, talented females appreciate and understand healthy competition;
  4. group gifted females together for discussion groups and class work to enable them to develop leadership skills;
  5. encourage creativity in girls;
  6. expose girls to other creative, gifted females through direct and curricular experiences that demonstrate how talented women deal with internal barriers;
  7. encourage multiple opportunities for creative expression in multiple modalities and areas.

Counselors Should:

  1. provide group counseling sessions for gifted and talented girls who share issues such as perfectionism, multipotentiality, underachievement, or absence of belief in ability;
  2. sponsor discussion groups and conferences, workshops, and symposia for and about gifted, creative women for talented girls and their parents to enable them to understand internal barriers;
  3. provide bibliotherapy and videotherapy in small group sessions; provide readings in a wide variety of excellent resources and view films such as The Joy Luck Club based on the novel by Amy Tan about the struggle of talented, creative women;
  4. establish support groups with a network of talented girls and other peers;
  5. contact parents when talented and creative girls begin to underachieve or seem confused about abilities, aspirations, or careers;
  6. provide information about societies, web pages, and resources that encourage and support gifted girls and women.
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