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An Interview with Janet Davidson: Reflections on Gender and Giftedness

By Michael Shaughnessy.

SENG’s Editor in Chief, Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, interviews Janet E. Davidson on gender, expertise, creativity, intelligence theories, and other aspects of giftedness.

Question: Dr. Davidson, you have recently written about three contemporary approaches to intelligence and giftedness. You have written about Howard Gardner’s approach, Robert Sternberg’s ideas and John Carroll. Why did you choose these three?

Answer: At least since the publication of Sir Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius in 1869, theories of intelligence have influenced society’s attitudes about gifted children. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Robert Sternberg’s views of intelligence and wisdom, and John Carroll’s three-stratum theory have been particularly instrumental in extending conceptions of giftedness beyond high intelligence quotients (IQs). More specifically, Gardner’s and Sternberg’s theories conceptualize intelligence as a dynamic system that involves interactions between multiple abilities, mental processes, and contextual influences. In other words, they propose that the environment and the individual interact to produce gifted behavior. Identification of gifted children, therefore, should occur through context-based measurement (such as portfolios) and parent or teacher ratings. In contrast, Carroll’s hierarchical theory approaches intelligence as a multifaceted and relatively fixed entity. According to this view, giftedness can be identified through psychometric testing.

Overall, these three theories help us understand that giftedness takes many forms. Some children are schoolhouse gifted, which means they excel at psychometric tests and in several academic disciplines. More common are children who exhibit exceptional and often creative performance in one domain, while showing average or below average ability in other ones.

Question: Howard Gardner has written about intra- and inter-personal intelligences. Why in your mind are these “intelligences” important?

Answer: Traditionally, there has been a gap between childhood and adult giftedness, often with one type not predicting the other. The criterion for childhood giftedness was typically exceptional acquisition of domain-general information or high IQ, whereas adult giftedness was based on discovery of a creative and productive way to conceptualize information in a specific domain.

In addition to broadening our view of giftedness, Howard Gardner’s intra- and inter-personal intelligences help bridge this giftedness gap because an exceptional understanding of oneself and others is valuable across the lifespan. More specifically, a thorough knowledge of one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and motivations can inform and guide one’s choices and responses in life. The strong ability to understand other people’s emotions, intentions, and desires allows a person to work well with others. High amounts of these two intelligences provide an individual with the opportunity to improve his or her own life and the lives of other people.

Question: What role does expertise play in giftedness, and how does it relate to gifted kids’ social and emotional needs?

Answer: Some theories and empirical evidence suggest that giftedness is domain-specific expertise that develops gradually through deliberate practice and extended training. Fairly early in their lives, many gifted children become deeply and intrinsically motivated to master their areas of interest. (It seems likely that nature and nurture interact in these cases.) These gifted children are often obsessed with their areas of interest and tend to acquire information in these domains at an earlier and more rapid rate than their peers acquire it.

This developing expertise contributes to gifted children’s realization that they are different from their peers and are not treated the same. Sometimes this sense of being different can lead to feelings of pride and high self-esteem. For other gifted students, unfortunately, it results in feelings of isolation or unpopularity, low self esteem, and depression. Some gifted children purposely underachieve in an attempt to be socially accepted by their peers; this underachievement in gifted children is more likely to occur for girls than for boys.

Question: What role does social responsibility play in giftedness, and does it differ for males and females?

Answer: Conceptions of giftedness tend to reflect potentials and behaviors that a society values and hopes to cultivate. Recently there has been concern in the United States about a perceived decline in collective civic actions. Consequently, there has been increasing interest in the personal characteristics that allow some individuals to use their gifts to promote ?characteristics include passion, optimism, sensible risk taking, a sense of destiny, and sensitivity to human concerns. The overall goal of this recent focus on social responsibility is to benefit society by identifying and fostering gifted leaders who will address collective needs in a wide range of domains.

Conceptions of giftedness that include a role for social responsibility seem particularly useful for identifying gifted girls and fostering their talents. For example, the personal characteristics listed above fit well with attributes of eminent females. These women tend to believe in themselves, have a heightened sense of purpose, and have a strong desire to improve their talents so that they can make a difference in the world.

Furthermore, gifted individuals’ gender-based responses to personal relationships are reminiscent of Carol Gilligan’s proposed gender differences in moral reasoning; females tend to focus on care and responsibility for other people, while males tend to concentrate on individuality and principles.

Question: What role does creativity play, and does it differ for males and females?

Answer: As noted above for question one, giftedness takes a variety of forms. Creativity is not needed for children to be identified as schoolhouse giftedness. However, other children possess what Joe Renzulli calls creative-productive giftedness. This type of giftedness involves the development of innovative ideas or products that will be valued by their targeted audiences. Creative-productive giftedness also requires above-average intelligence, sensible risk taking, a high sense of purpose, and the motivation to work hard for a prolonged period of time. As with intra- and inter-personal intelligences, creativity bridges the gap between childhood and adult giftedness. It involves the same capacity across the lifespan, even though one’s creative goals and accomplishments change with age.

Gender differences have typically not been found for children’s performance on creative tasks and standardized tests of creativity. There are, however, gender differences in a number of creative achievements in adulthood, with men outdistancing women. Interestingly, Sally Reis has found evidence that eminent women are more diverse in their creative pursuits than are eminent men. This diversity includes non-work areas, such as relationships and personal interests. Unfortunately, we do not currently know enough about the creative process and the gender differences (and similarities) that might exist.

Question: Could you briefly discuss gender and giftedness?

Answer: More men than women are identified as gifted, and there is evidence that gender affects the development of giftedness. Females, for example, are less visible than males in terms of their achievements; this difference increases with age. Less visibility, in part, is due to how society defines achievement. Gifted women are more likely than gifted men to include relationships among their greatest accomplishments, yet these relationships are rarely recognized by society. There are also some gender differences in domains of giftedness. For example, gifted girls score lower than gifted boys on measures of motivation, interest, and self concept in mathematics.

Question: Why do barriers for gifted girls and women continue to exist and what can be done about them?

Answer: Barriers for gifted girls and talented women seem to reside in socio-cultural norms and practices. External impediments include gender stereotypes, less access to resources, lack of familial support, and multiple demands on their time. Psychological barriers for many gifted females include low self-efficacy, career goals that diminish with age, unrealistic expectations, guilt over putting work before relationships, and the attribution of success to effort or luck rather than to ability.

We can help gifted girls overcome these obstacles by providing them with mentors, appropriate resources, a strong support network, a wide range of opportunities for creative work, and diverse methods for integrating their careers and relationships. In addition, more research and theories on gender differences in giftedness would help bring about socio-cultural change that will reduce these barriers.

Question: What have I neglected to ask?

Answer: I would have asked myself much easier questions! However, yours are quite good and they cover a range of important topics.


Janet E. Davidson is Associate Professor of Psychology at Lewis & Clark College, where she won the Professor of the Year award in 1997. Her Ph.D. is from Yale University (1989). She does research on several aspects of problem solving, including the roles that insight and metacognitive skills play in problem solving performance and giftedness across the lifespan. In 1988, she won a Mensa Education and Research Foundation Award for Excellence. She and Robert J. Sternberg have edited four books,The Psychology of Problem Solving (2003), Conceptions of Giftedness (1986), The Nature of Insight(1995), and a second edition of Conceptions of Giftedness in 2005.

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