When Rebecca Raby and Shauna Pomerantz went on a search to discover what “smart” looks like in today’s schools, they discovered a disturbing trend: Girls were sacrificing their grades in exchange for popularity. Here’s why.

By Rebecca Raby & Shauna Pomerantz

ERIN WAS SHOCKED when her friends told her to dumb it down if she wanted to fit in better at school. The Niagara, Ont.-based 12-year-old was mystified as to why her friends would recommend she take a hit to her grades in order to achieve popularity at school. We learned that Erin was not alone—other girls were also finding it hard to be the “smart girl” and the “popular girl” at the same time.

Over the past 20 years, media outlets and popular psychological books have circulated the idea that girls are thriving in school while boys are failing. Gender inequality is not only over, as these stories suggest, but now boys need the support, not girls. While some girls do well in school, we wondered about the story that wasn’t being told.

For our book, Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism, we interviewed 57 girls and 17 boys in southern Ontario to learn more about what being smart looks like for girls. We found that girls’ everyday experiences of being smart and trying to fit in complicate the argument that girls no longer face challenges in school.

WHEN GIRLS DUMB DOWN
Throughout our research, we chatted with girls who dumb down or stay quiet in class in order to gain friends and attract boys by conforming to popular femininity. Girls talked about the need to look attractive and trendy, noting that boys “go for pretty over smart.” They also talked about the need to be seen as nice rather than outspoken in the classroom. Younger girls worried about being seen as teachers’ pets while smart boys could be more positively positioned as class clowns.

Some girls did not dumb down. There were girls who seemed able to excel at everything: they were smart, pretty, athletic, popular, and involved in extracurricular activities. But most of these girls were bolstered by privilege, and went to schools that supported diversity and girls’ high academic achievement. There were also some girls who focused on the future, believing that being smart was more important than fitting in. Yet, others still hid their intelligence, careful not to be too open about their academic skills.

GENDER INEQUALITY
In our research, we discovered that girls wrestled with sexism, narrow expectations of popular femininity, and worries about their future in an unequal job market. Their response was often to be nicer, to hold back, and to also work hard. While the boys we talked to faced different challenges, like ensuring they were not seen studying—an uncool trait for boys— dumbing down and worrying about the future were simply not as prevalent in our conversations with boys.

IF YOUR DAUGHTER DUMBS DOWN
Parental support plays a huge role, helping girls to negotiate the challenges involved in being smart and driven. Dr. Joanne Foster, co-author of Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happy, Productive Kids, suggests that parents should keep an eye out for shifts in their behaviour: a drop in grades, less focus on past interests, a new social scene, unusual excuses or pulling away.

“They can respond by talking with their daughters, including asking about whether there is a place for smart girls at their school,” says Foster. She also says that parents can further support their daughters by maintaining routines, teaching self-advocacy, and keeping expectations manageable. “We can also praise girls for being cool, interesting, creative, athletic, and yes, smart too,” she says. ■

Rebecca Raby and Shauna Pomerantz are faculty in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. They coauthored Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism (University of California Press).