Smart Girls Get Even Smarter With Female Competition

Japanese school uniform, Yohohama, Japan
Image via Wikipedia

Interesting story from Slate:

Two recent studies suggest that [writer Mary] Pipher’s basic observation about girls’ vulnerability to peer pressure remains true, but they emphasize that peer pressure can sometimes be a good thing. The studies examined the academic achievement of high school students and found that being surrounded by underachieving classmates has a negative effect on girls and boys—both genders feel pressure to conform to the lower standards of their peers. But the studies also show that girls are more sensitive than boys to the presence of high-achieving peers. Surround a girl with diligent classmates, and her performance will improve.

Makes sense to me.

I was lucky enough, from Grades 4 through 9, to attend a demanding, competitive all-girl school. Our teachers were ferocious, with Scottish names like Miss Brodie and Miss Brough (rhymes with tough, gruff, and never good enough), and it was clear to me — at the age of eight — I’d better be smart, or else! I studied Latin as early as Grade 7, with Zora Srepel. (How can you forget a name like that?)

I loved how scary these Himalayan expectations were, even to little girls, with the very clear message that the coolest girls were those who walked off each year with the prizes for each subject, who went off to the best universities — not those with the biggest breasts or best-looking boyfriends. We competed for grades, for recognition for our intelligence and skill.

I started winning prizes early for my writing and won the respect of my peers. Since they were smart as hell, that meant something.

When I arrived at a mediocre co-ed public high school I felt like I’d gone, which I had, from breathing the pure oxygen of the best kind of peer pressure to the sludgy smog of a shrug. Girls? If we weren’t cute or docile, we didn’t register on the radar, either teachers’, other girls or boys.

By the time I went to university, it was too late. You were, as most college kids are, on your own, just one more body in a seat. Without that early jump-start, the booster-rocket of knowing I could compete against the best, I’m not sure I would have had the success I did.

I don’t have a daughter, but if I did I’d do anything I could to keep her surrounded by high-achieving women.

I had lunch yesterday with a new friend, a woman perhaps a decade younger, who has already created two successful companies (while having two small children); her products are sold in the nation’s largest stores. Like me, she’s a a former competitive athlete, has also lived in France and hoped to work as a diplomat.

I could feel my brain revving up again in the presence of a woman who’s whip-smart, fun, driven (in a good way) — yet who was able to enjoy a three-hour lunch with me. It felt like a hit of pure oxygen.

Have you felt this effect — or seen it in your own daughter(s)?

15 thoughts on “Smart Girls Get Even Smarter With Female Competition

  1. inmyhumbleopinion

    This is so spot on.

    What makes me crazy in our K-8 school district is that they insist on teaching to the middle rather than group kids by ability. I think this is a California thing–everyone is so impossibly PC that tracking kids will forever imprint a scarlet letter on their foreheads, never to be removed through hard work or achievement.

    Baloney. Personally, I think this is their rationalization for not having enough money to hire enough teachers to cover honors classes, which, if they just leveled with us, I can understand. Once the kids get to high school, the whole scenario changes–the college-bound kids are siphoned off to one side and the rest on the other, as it should be.

    But back to your question: My daughter is in 7th grade and I’m definitely seeing the dumbing down effect as she’s getting more and more interested in boys. While I can see the benefits of single-sex education, I just don’t think it’s reality. Raising her in a bubble won’t necessarily prepare her for when she’s confronted with the opposite sex in college. She’s not a ball-sport kind of kid, otherwise I’d get her involved in softball or basketball or something that builds both physical confidence and teamwork. Critical, I think, to girls having a real sense of self.

    So, I encourage her current interests–theater, singing, dance–and stay on her to keep her grades up.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I not only attended single-sex school ages 8-13 but single-sex summer camp ages 8-16, 2 months every summer. I had, clearly (thankfully) limited to no exposure to boys or to sexist male teachers.

    Did it hurt me? I don’t think so. I’m way too blunt, for sure, so didn’t learn the girly ways of hair-tossing etc. but tant pis. I competed hard and effectively in college and – more importantly to me – was writing for national publications as a college sophomore. It gave me tremendous confidence that women are smart as hell and anyone who fails to “get” that is stupid and obstructive. And women/girls get that their whole lifetime.

    If it was my kid, I’d inoculate her, so to speak, with even a few years of all-girl braininess — even only at a summer camp; think of it as a feminist palate-cleanser — before having to deal with all the attendant absurdity of boys and men.

    Sports has always been a great place for me to be aggressive (legitimately), while learning teamwork, etc. One **fantastic** sport for girls is fencing. I cannot recommend it too highly: graceful, super-fierce, fun, requires lots of brainpower not just brawn and speed. It also teaches strategy, quick thinking, anticipation, learning how to sum up someone within seconds and figure out how to handle them — all the skills we all need and use every day in life.

  3. lizskoski

    Some competition is needed for all students to succeed, not just girls. Recent studies have shown that putting some pressure on students pushes every student to strive for more. While there is a place to acknowledge each individual students strengths and weaknesses, there should also be some well-placed competitions for students to show off their best abilities, be it in writing, math, theater, dance, physics, whatever.

    However, I don’t think that “tracking” and “grouping” students provides the right kind of competition; the kind of competition that can come to benefit all students. During my time student teaching we read many studies about the results of tracking. One such that stuck in my head was when students were grouped by scholastic ability. They were then asked to pick a name for their group, a bird’s name in this case. The “smart” group chose something powerful and bold: The Eagles. The “not-so-smart” group chose something less strong and quite a bit weaker: “The Pigeons.” It’s easy to see how tracking actually can lead to that scarlet letter that does end up following many kids.

    That being said, competition can still be a wonderful self-esteem builder for many students, but it must be done in a way to allow for the multitude of ways someone in our society can succeed. Succeeding to some may mean winning all the prizes at the end of the year or getting the best grade on a test. And those students should certainly be validated for that. But success can also mean helping all the members of a group compete a task first or being able to explain a complex idea/thought to a fellow student who may be having trouble. Pitting students against each other in a tunnel-vision view of success (i.e. college, college, college before they’ve even left middle school) can give students a warped view of self-worth…the idea that “I’m only successful if I’ve succeeded in the very specific thing my school allows me to succeed in: sports, grades, prizes.” There are certainly ways for schools to use competitions to get the best out of their students, and, trust me, many teachers are trying damn hard every single day to meet the specific needs of their students. But I think that society (especially over-parenting parents) might need to take a step back and see that winning at competitions doesn’t necessarily make you the best, even if it might make you valedictorian.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    “Pitting students against each other in a tunnel-vision view of success (i.e. college, college, college before they’ve even left middle school) can give students a warped view of self-worth…the idea that “I’m only successful if I’ve succeeded in the very specific thing my school allows me to succeed in: sports, grades, prizes.” There are certainly ways for schools to use competitions to get the best out of their students, and, trust me, many teachers are trying damn hard every single day to meet the specific needs of their students. But I think that society (especially over-parenting parents) might need to take a step back and see that winning at competitions doesn’t necessarily make you the best, even if it might make you valedictorian.”


    Thanks for such a thoughtful and wise comment. I agree completely that this sort of “competition” in and of itself is nuts — and way too narrow. You, I’m sure, know of Gardner’s different forms of intelligence and yet only verbal and written are most rewarded — not spatial or visual or even “soft” crucial skills of emotional intelligence like compassion, sensitivity and the willingness and skill to coach or mentor others.

    I grew up in Canada — 10 percent of the U.S. population. While top spots are fiercely contested (and there are many fewer of them) its not the zero-sum, elbow in the eye mindset which is so prevalent/normal here.

    It was, very very humbling when I went to study interior design — which of course meant lots of drawing, drafting, color work. I discovered I’m weak with spatial stuff and, having excelled for decades verbally and in writing, that was instructive! I’ve also since taken a number of tests that show me how I best learn/teach/listen, and this helped me understand “failure” in some jobs.

    I’m best at hands-on, experiential learning, which is why I have never sought an advanced degree from a university. I love thinking, reading and writing, but I hate sitting for hours in a classroom while someone drones on.

    I wish students had a much wider exposure to all sorts of work — whether blue collar or white — to realize that “book smart” is only one way to make a (decent) enjoyable living.

  5. jaxyn

    If my recollection serves me correctly, women who go to women’s colleges are higher achievers in life than women who go to co-ed schools. Had I known that I might have chosen to go to one as my sister did. She chose it for the banal reason that it was the best school to accept her, but she is indeed a very high achiever as are many of her college friends.

    I’ve always had a very hard time getting along with women, so I often avoid situations which are predominately female. However, I’ve never been in a truly all female environment, so perhaps that would be different.

    I have to confess, I’ve always longed for a close female friend.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    jaxyn, I think it depends on the environment – and the women. The girls I went to school and camp with were fun, no-BS jocks. In high school, in contrast, the girls were hopeless — forever discussing their diets. I sat at the boys’ table and my closest friends were guys, as they have been much of my life.

    Women can be horrible to one another, certainly. But the larger issue, of sexist teachers or professors not encouraging — let alone consistently expecting/demanding excellence from girls and young women — is a problem. You can only rise to the expectations set before you. If you are deemed to be stupid or incapable by being female, odds are you’ll “prove” them right. Which is crazy.

    1. evyb

      I agree with you *totally* about depending on environment – and the women in a same sex education! I went to 2 all girls schools and it was NOT fun. It was not competitive and certainly not supportive as I thought it would be of women – considering one was an all girl’s college.

      In my school, the MAJORITY of all the girls ( not just my class) did not go on to be “high achievers”. I know this because the school highlights current bio’s of former students in the newspaper/fun raising campaigns they send to alumni. Twice a year you get the, ‘where are they now’ special editions.
      So I am not sure where the notion came from that all girl’s schools produce higher achievers than co-ed schools. This is not to say some are not successful in their lives – I just would not deem them as high achieving.

      I also agree with you that the issue of sexist school teachers was/is a huge problem. I didn’t notice at the time I was in school, only after – especially in the sciences and maths.

      I think in no small part because of my schooling I have always been closer to men than women. I think it is greatly desirable to have one dependable, honest, supportive woman as a friend. Unfortunately, I have found most of the women I have encountered in my life to be cruel. As an adult my opinions have not much changed.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    evyb, sorry to hear this. I had a few very good friends in my all-girl school — but also did see some quite impressive cruelty. I really liked the girls I met at camp and a few are still friends many years later. I know these environments can be rough and it’s also variable from school to school.

    Women can be fickle; I’ve been dropped more times than I like, especially the second someone gets married. You buy them some fancy wedding present and that’s the end, even after a decade of “friendship.” I do find my guy friends more loyal.

  8. leonkelly

    A Male perspective: My son went to a public school and was challenged by a robust Advanced placement program (that is astonishingly under attack from the tax paying public). He now attends a prestigious eastern private school with extremely high academic standards. A majority of his classmates attended eastern private prep schools. Based on the boy’s comments: These kids are good at passing courses, but are woefully maladjusted from a social perspective. Kids need both: to be in a competitive environment, but to also remain immersed in society as it really exists.

  9. Dawn Reiss

    Competition always breeds success. But isn’t that the American way? Without competition most of us would become complacent. We all need a little fire lit under – you know where – from time to time. Competition, and the need to be better or improve our situation, does that at any age, especially when there are similar role models.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    leon, thanks…A few thoughts. The young men we used to meet (they’d bus us in like some bad 1940s movie) at their single-sex schools *were* shockingly inept at dealing with us, so I’m not surprised to hear this. But any prep school is likely to be so rareified in its tiny fraction of non-wealthy students that this sort of elitism, to me, would be more problematic.

    The challenge with “society as it really exists” — to beat my original point to death! — is that, for smart girls, it’s a nightmare. They are too often laughed at or shamed or dismissed, especially from STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) classes, in high school and college. when they need to be *encouraged* every step of the way. Engineers designing every single aspect of how we live need female ideas and input, to name only one aspect of this.

    What’s the solution? How can really smart girls gain and keep the absolutely crucial self-confidence they need to compete, not only against other smart women, but smart men? This, in a culture that focuses insane, relentless, absurd attention on the size of their breasts or hips — not, which matters most, their brain.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Dawn, I agree. What is driving me mad about female competition in this culture is that it is NOT — hello, feminism? — focused on intellect and heart, but looks/baby bumps/getting the ring — every retro, tedious, weary cliche of “successful” womanhood. A “successful” woman must be skinny, rich, married and a Mom. As if.

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  13. jeff

    I think that you are right on target saying that positive peer pressure can be a powerful force. I have seen this in my daughter, who goes to an all girls school’s high school. She has also mentioned this to me, saying how great it is to have ambitious and driving peers at her school and how an previous schoolmate at another high school is getting dragged down by peers with little or no ambition.

    Just curious, why did you pick the Japanese school girls as the picture for your post?

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    I didn’t give the image a lot of thought — wanted all girls, though.

    I saw an enormous difference between what was expected of us in my all-girl environments (we had girls who competed nationally in sports, “head girls” and prefects) and my co-ed high school. In an all-female environment, excelling is cool and what the smartest and most talented girls just do. You want to compete and keep up with them in that way — not sexually or with clothes or stupid “normal” measures.

    Women spend so much of their academic or professional lives being underestimated; any one who has the chance to be pushed really hard while younger realizes how much she really *does* have to offer. She may not ever be asked for as much again but once she knows it, she can drive herself hard and seek mentors or bosses who get it.

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