Can Girls Be Smart and Popular?

by Susan Howell | August 10, 2013

When teaching a college gender studies course, students are often surprised to learn of what researcher L. A. Bell calls the “smart versus social” dilemma, meaning that as early as elementary school, girls seem to feel that they have to choose between being smart and having relationships.

Laura Roberts & Anne Petersen of Lafayette College also found that among 6th and 7th graders, boys and girls who did well in math and science had a better social self-image. However, when making the transition into 8th grade, something interesting happened.

While the boys’ success was still related to better self-image, the girls’ self-image increased when their math scores dropped from A’s to B’s! The researchers concluded that adolescent girls might be getting the message that being “too smart” makes them less accepted by others.

While it’s easy to say “Well, girls shouldn’t feel that way,” I think it would serve us better to ask why and from whom are they getting this message? From their parents? teachers? other children? the media?

We certainly do need to help these girls see achievement as an advantage rather than a detriment to relationships. But for girls to “buy” it, we need to train parents, teachers, children, and the media to make that message clear to girls (and boys) of all ages.

Do you have any ideas on how we can go about this?

Bell, L. A. (1996). In danger of winning. Women’s Studies International Forum.

Roberts, L. R. & Petersen, A. C. (1992). The relationship between academic achievement and social self-image during early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence.