Jane Charlton never intended to skip high school.
“I was planning on just skipping ninth grade,” says the renowned astrophysicist, who spent her summers taking calculus classes at Carnegie Mellon University. “But when the school year was about to start, the teachers went on strike and my math professor said, ‘Why don't you just start here?’”
Three years later, Charlton received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics. She headed for the University of Chicago, where she earned her master’s at 19, and her Ph.D. at 22. By the time Charlton had her first child, in her late 20s, she was a tenured professor at Pennsylvania State University, where she maps the universe and charts the history of evolving galaxies.
“By skipping grades and getting to grad school early, I could devote time and energy to building my career and earn tenure before I started raising a family,” says Charlton. “It was extremely beneficial to my career not to be devoting my 20s to anything else.”
Charlton is an outlier, not only in terms of her intelligence and ambition, but also because educators allowed her to accelerate ahead of her peers and satisfy her hunger and capacity to learn. Many of the estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million mathematically gifted girls—6 to 10 percent of girls in U.S. K-12 classrooms, according to the National Association for Gifted Children—don’t have the option to accelerate. They move through schools and universities at a pace that all but ensures that their prime career-building years will, for those who want to have children, overlap with family-making years, forcing many to make career-stunting trade-offs.