Can Grade-Skipping Close the STEM Gender Gap?

If girls were allowed to accelerate through school, then perhaps their peak career- and family-building years would not overlap.

A girl wearing pigtails does math problems on a chalkboard
Alexander F. Yuan / AP

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.

Creating more opportunities for super-bright girls to skip grades might be one of the most viable ways to open cracks in the glass ceiling that has plagued STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields for decades. But these days, young children are far more likely to be “redshirted”—held back from school to allow extra time for physical, socioemotional, or intellectual growth—than they are to charge ahead of their same-age peers.

Grade-skipping and early college admissions were relatively common in the U.S. during the Cold War, when the nation’s brightest students were considered a strategic resource and nurturing their talents became a national priority. Educators encouraged acceleration, and school districts invested in enrichment programs for the most capable and eager students.

These post-Sputnik brainiacs rose quickly through schools, universities, and graduate programs, spurring an unprecedented increase in doctorates and highly educated adults whose innovations boosted living standards, created tens of millions of jobs, and fueled much of the West’s economic growth.

It was a hallmark of the times that most of those high-paying science and engineering jobs were filled by men. The times have changed, but the imbalance in science and technical fields persists: Though women now make up more than half of the U.S. workforce and earn the majority of masters and doctorate degrees, they comprise just 24 percent of STEM workers.

That imbalance can’t be explained by lack of early interest: Nearly three-quarters of high-school girls in the U.S. are interested in the fields and subjects of STEM, according to a study by the Girl Scout Research Institute. But other research indicates that pervasive stereotyping and gender discrimination—by teachers, parents, and fellow students—exposes girls to the message that females are inferior in the STEM fields. Despite a raft of initiatives to support and encourage girls to pursue these fields, engagement with math and science tends to wane as girls get older.

Among women who do make it into the STEM workforce, the ranks tend to dwindle with each higher rung on the career ladder. At the very top, women hold only 5 percent of leadership positions.

What is holding high-ability women back when they go into their peak career-building years? At least one study suggests that the gender gap in STEM professions the can be attributed at least partly to different priorities and life and work choices that men and women make.

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) has for 46 years tracked the careers and accomplishments of some 5,000 people whose high cognitive abilities were identified and supported in their early years. The SMPY data have generated more than 400 papers, including one that looked at how the career paths of precociously gifted males and females diverged over the past four decades. While they started their academic lives similarly, priorities began to deviate once they rose to the professional level. Men reported working an average of 11 more hours per week than the women. Asked how much they’d be willing to work if they had their “ideal job,” 30 percent of women were unwilling to work more than 40 hours per week; only seven percent of men felt the same way.

In an attempt to understand this apparent divide in priorities and time allocation, the SMPY researchers analyzed the values reported by each gender group. Among the men’s top values were full-time work, making an impact, and earning a high income. Women were more inclined to value part-time work, time for close relationships, and community and family involvement.

“There are many exceptions, but as a whole mathematically gifted men are working more and achieving more professionally, while women value more balanced lives,” says the paper’s co-author Camilla Benbow, the dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. STEM professionals are particularly susceptible to “knowledge decay,” Benbow adds. “If you step out for a year or two to raise kids or care for an elderly parent [two duties that most often fall to women], you don’t step back into the same stream; you often get passed by.”

And yet, despite their overall lower professional commitment and achievement, female study subjects generally considered themselves as successful and as satisfied as their male counterparts. “The women expressed stronger preferences for and devoted more time to advancing family and community,” says Benbow. “Both groups are contributing to society, though they travel different paths to highly productive and satisfying lives.”

But to women who have experienced systemic or personal discrimination in offices, laboratories, or homes, attributing the STEM gender gap to different lifestyle preferences and priorities may seem too convenient.

“I think it’s bullshit,” says the neurosurgeon Deborah Benzil, who, like Charlton, participated in the SMPY survey. “You can call it a choice, but it’s a choice that men don’t usually have to make. Who else is going have the babies?”

In the U.S., only 5 percent of neurosurgeons are women. Benzil belongs to a professional group of female neurosurgeons that recently conducted an informal survey of its members. “Virtually every woman considers having kids as a hurdle,” says Benzil. “Some wanted to have children, but they didn’t think the profession would allow it.”

Benzil, who didn’t have an option to skip grades in primary or secondary school, had her first child while she was a medical resident, against the strong objections of her program director. “I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone,” she says. “Even with a super-supportive partner, it was extremely challenging. I was physically wrecked during those early years.”

It may be that high-ability women have come to define success more broadly than men because they have less opportunity in the workplace. A study of 25,000 Harvard Business School alumni found that a majority of both men and women wanted their careers to be at least as important as their spouse’s. When children came along, though, the men’s careers increasingly took precedence and the women’s careers usually suffered.

Accelerating the conventional education timeline—which all but ensures that a woman’s peak career-building years will overlap with peak childbearing and child-rearing years—may give more high-ability women who want to have children the opportunity to reach high levels in STEM than currently is the case.

SMPY and numerous other studies have provided large-sample evidence that appropriate acceleration benefits the vast majority of gifted children. In a comparison of grade-skipping students with a control group of equally smart students who stayed with their age groups, the grade-skippers were more than twice as likely to earn a Ph.D. in science, math, or engineering, and had more patents and publications at mid-career. Even modest interventions, such as access to Advanced Placement courses or self-paced instruction, give students demonstrable advantages that continue through college and into the workplace. Conversely, exceptionally gifted students who remain with their age peers typically underachieve and experience negative effects on motivation, self-esteem, and anxiety.

Still, many teachers and parents remain skeptical of acceleration, believing that it will push children out of childhood or hurt them socially. One survey of teachers found pervasive and entrenched beliefs that acceleration jeopardizes social-emotional adaptation, despite the weight of evidence that acceleration produces social-emotional gains for the majority of gifted and talented students.

Charlton, the astrophysicist, says that the jump to college made her teenage years less stressful. “Socially I couldn’t have made out well in high school,” she says. “People my own age viewed me as peculiar. At 15, college was a better place for me. I was with my intellectual peers and I made good friends. And being successful at a very young age gave me the confidence and the capability to try new things.”

Proponents of acceleration caution that it can have adverse effects on students who are not emotionally and socially mature.

“Just because the research says it works for average kid doesn’t mean it’s a viable solution for every girl who could work above grade level,” says Dona Matthews, a developmental psychologist who co-founded the Center for Gifted Studies and Education at Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York. “If a really young girl is thrown in with more mature kids, she can grow up too soon—emotionally, socially, and sexually.”

Matthews herself was accelerated as a child. “It was very good for me. But I've seen negative experiences with kids I've worked with, and with my daughter. It seemed like a no-brainer for her, and at first she acclimated just fine. But when she reached the seventh grade, it wasn’t healthy for her to be in that older cohort.”

Acceleration works best, Matthews says, when groups of girls can accelerate together, and when support for the students’ social and emotional needs is in place. Other talent-development experts advise that acceleration needs to be more than a placement decision; it should be an ongoing process of careful planning and implementation.

In a perfect world, schools would give every child an education that matches his or her current level of achievement. But since the turn of the millennium, resources for gifted programs have been diverted to support a long-overdue focus on the nation’s underachievers; consequently, many schools have become far less appropriate for students at the top end of the talent curve. That may be changing as some schools and school districts implement “personalized-learning” programs that tailor curricula, instruction, and pace to individual students’ strengths and interests. But in the majority of schools, high-ability students and their parents often need to advocate for interventions that will allow them to progress at speeds that fit their natural or preferred rate of learning.

Accelerating these students often costs little or nothing—and in some cases may actually save schools money. “These kids often don’t need anything innovative or novel,” says the psychologist David Lubinski, who co-directs the SMPY survey. “Often they just need access to what's already available to older kids, but sooner.”

When I ask Charlton what she imagines high school would have been like for her had she not skipped past it, she responds quickly.

“I would have spent most of my time waiting,” she says.

Indeed, “waiting” was the most common response when Tracy Cross at the College of William and Mary asked 13,000 children in seven states to describe in one word their experience as gifted children. “They said they were always waiting for teachers to move ahead, waiting for classmates to catch up, waiting to learn something new—always waiting,” Cross says.