It was 1971, and Johns Hopkins University psychology professor Julian Stanley wanted to answer one very big question: How can we set up highly intelligent kids to become highly successful adults?
To find out, he launched a study so extensive he would not live to see its fruition. Stanley set out to track the accomplishments, educational outcomes and well-being of a select group of gifted 13-year-olds over their lives. He recruited 1,037 boys and 613 girls within five years of one another in the 1970s. All were in the top 1 percent when it came to their mathematical reasoning abilities, based on college-level exams they took to qualify for the study. The children, he reasoned, would offer insights into how to help young people grow up to live successful, fulfilling lives.
He called it the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. And before his death in 2005, Stanley handed the reigns of the study over to fellow educational psychologist Camilla P. Benbow. Soon after, Benbow enlisted the help of her colleague David Lubinski.
In 2012, Benbow and Lubinski checked back in with the children, now between the ages of 48 and 53. Along with fellow researcher Harrison J. Kell, they administered a survey to find out how the study participants were faring, 40 years after they first tested into that top tier of academic achievers.
The STEM-minded kids didn't disappoint: Eight percent had earned a patent, 2.3 percent were top executives at "name brand" or Fortune 500 companies; 4.1 percent had earned tenure at a major university; 2.4 percent were attorneys at the country's top firms; and 3 percent had published a book.
But what specifically interested the researchers was the difference between how men and women fared:
"We wanted to investigate the lifestyle and psychological orientation required for developing a truly outstanding career and creative production," the researchers wrote in an article accompanying the survey results, published in November in the journal Psychological Science. "When SMPY was launched, many educational and occupational opportunities were just becoming open to women, so we paid particular attention to how mathematically precocious females, relative to males, have constructed their lives over the past 40 years."
So what insights did the high achievers offer?
Even at this level of intelligence, researchers found that the gender gap was real and obvious. Women in the study, as public discourse would suggest, were indeed interested in "having it all." Men were more focused on money than childcare.
But when it comes to "success," the achievers were varied in how they defined it, chased it and lived it out. As Lubinski told The Huffington Post, "There are many different ways to create a satisfying life."
And at the end of the day, there was one place that no difference existed at all: Study participants across the board talked about their family when asked what made their life worth living.
Gifted men and women who consider themselves successful spend their time very differently.
What made Stanley's study so unique was the 40 years in which it was conducted: They're four decades during which American women have had unprecedented opportunities for high-level career success. Benbow, Lubinski and Kell asked the adults about how they spent their time, what was important to them, how they saw their contributions to society and what they'd change about their lives if they could.
The male and female participants seemed to start out their lives divvying up their time similarly: As a whole, their education credentials were well above the American average, with about a third earning a bachelor's degree, a third earning a master's degree and another third earning a doctorate.
When they hit the professional level, however, men and women shifted priorities. The men reported working an average of 11 more hours per week than the women in the same age group, who generally stuck to a 40-hour work week. This pattern was flipped when it came to time devoted to family, relatives, homemaking and home maintenance -- women reported spending significantly more time on domestic duties than the men, and planned to keep doing so. Previous, more nationally representative studies have found similar time use patterns among men and women.
The fact that the women reported spending so much time tending to activities outside the office may provide insight into their careers relative to the men's. While the study participants were equally represented in fields like finance, medicine and law, male participants were more likely to be chief executives or work in STEM jobs. Female participants were more likely to work in general business, elementary and secondary education, as well as health care (below the doctoral level). They were also more likely to be homemakers.
"If there's one thing that the talent development literature is very clear on, it's that people with exceptional careers devote an inordinate amount of time to developing their career," Lubinski said. "These are not 40-hour workweek people. People who need more balance in their life are just not going to have as many cutting-edge careers as people who do. There are exceptions, but they're exceptions."
“If there's one thing that the talent development literature is very clear on, it's that people with exceptional careers devote an inordinate amount of time to developing their career."
Outside the study, other statistics reflect a similar gender gap in the professional STEM world. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the number of men in science occupations is double the number of women holding similar positions in all degree levels. Women are notable minorities in engineering, computer science and mathematics, and the coverage of women in Silicon Valley is often framed around understanding what it's like "being a female in a man's world." Headlines about the industry often ask: "Where Are The Women?"
But an equally pressing question might be: Where do they go instead? This year, Pew Research Center found that 10 percent of mothers with a master's degree or higher are choosing to stay home to care for their families, earning the moniker "opt-out moms."
Lubinski said it's quite possible that women are underrepresented in competitive STEM fields due to personal choices made after completing their education. He cited a 2010 study about men and women in STEM that found that the gender discrepancy at the professional level can be attributed to the life choices men and women make, "whether free or constrained."
He also said that STEM disciplines in particular are not easy career paths to step in and out of if one needs to care for children or an elderly parent -- two duties that statistics show more often fall to women.
"If you check out for a year or two, you just don't step back into the same stream," Lubinski said. "Technical disciplines are demanding, and the information decay is rapid."
Chalking up the professional gender gap to choice may be a convenient conclusion for those unwilling to consider structural and personal discrimination, but it's not always that simple. A recent study of 25,000 Harvard Business School alumni, another high-achieving group, found that women's high career expectations didn't always manifest when they got married and had children.
A majority of the men and women in the Harvard study said they wanted their careers to be more important or just as important as their spouse's in the context of the partnership. But in reality, the men's careers generally took precedence. The women, as it would happen, took on the brunt of the childcare at the cost of their careers, despite reporting a desire to share at-home responsibilities with their spouses.
The women's career paths might not have been their first choice, but rather their only choice. Just 11 percent of the women from the Harvard study said they voluntarily left the corporate world to focus on childcare. Most respondents said they had found themselves in "unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement," whether that was because they were "mommy-tracked" after maternity leave, branded as unambitious for taking advantage of flex options or simply passed over for promotions.
As a whole, women surveyed in the Harvard study were less satisfied with their careers than the men. But the Harvard study stopped there -- unlike the SMPY study, it didn't attempt to measure what participants valued in life in general. As a result, it's hard to tell whether these women were happy with the overall outcomes of their choices, even if their careers didn't match up with their expectations.
The SMPY study delved into that question.
High-achieving men and women also value different things, which may affect how their ambitions manifest.
The SMPY researchers attempted to figure out why their high-achieving men and women made the life choices they did by analyzing the values reported by each gender group. Among the male participants' top values were full-time work, making an impact and earning a high income. Female participants, on the other hand, valued part-time work, community and family involvement, as well as time for close relationships -- in a nutshell: "having it all."
The men and women also tended to have differing life philosophies. According to the study, "Men, on average, were more concerned with being successful in their work and feeling that society should invest in them because their ideas are better than most people's, whereas women felt more strongly that no one should be without life's necessities." While men focused on contributing to society through personal advancement, women sought to keep society "vibrant and healthy" through various means. (Previous research has found similar gender divides.)
A wage gap among participants may reflect the financial effects of acting on these values: Male participants made significantly more money than female participants, even when part-time workers were taken out of the equation. The men tended to earn more money if they were married, while the women's income remained unchanged whether or not they were married.
"While men focused on contributing to society through personal advancement, women sought to keep society 'vibrant and healthy' through various means."
On a national scale, women who work full time earn almost 18 percent less than men. Some of that discrepancy can be accounted for when considering the types of full-time jobs that more often go to women, and the number of hours that women are more likely to work.
According to a 2013 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men in 2012 were almost twice as likely to work more than 40 hours per week, and women were almost twice as likely to work 35 to 39 hours per week. Jobs that require fewer hours or offer more flexibility often come with lower salaries.
The report also noted that 68 percent of women in professional occupations worked in education and health care. The pay in these fields is generally lower than in jobs related to computers and engineering, fields that in 2012 employed 9 percent of women working in "professional and related occupations," but 45 percent of men in that category, the BLS reported. ("Professional and related occupations" includes education, health care, computers, engineering and law.)
But the sexes have a major unifier: the importance they place on family.
Men and women in the SMPY study placed equal importance on living in an urban environment, developing intellectual interests and improving the human condition. But the most notable consensus from the study participants was how their feelings of success were tied to the fulfillment they got from family.
"We asked them, 'What do you need for a meaningful life? What makes life worth living for you? What are you mostly proud of?' There were absolutely no sex differences. The men and the women all talked about their families in one way or another," Lubinski said. "That was the most frequent response, and it was twice as more prevalent as anything about their jobs or work."
Most of the study's participants -- 82 percent of males and 76 percent of females -- were married. But while both sexes agreed on the importance of family, they diverged once again when it came to how they contributed to their respective families. Men tended to invest in family through tangible monetary support, while women were more likely to give hands-on emotional support. Rather than focusing on financial contributions, female participants reported being with family in times of critical need.
Of course, these attitudes and behaviors reflect the average man and woman in the study, and Lubinski said that individuals didn't always follow these patterns. But these findings bring up questions about why these educated women were choosing to contribute emotional support in lieu of income. How much of this gendered approach toward family is instinct, and how much is socialization?
"Most informed observers think it's always a combination of predispositions and your cultural milieu," Lubinski said.
It's hard to tell why men and women tend to have different views on success and fulfillment.
All in all, female participants in the study saw success as a more holistic objective, valuing a balance of work, family and community life. Male participants, on the other hand, tilted their fulfillment scales heavily toward work.
So what's behind this divide? Are women forced to define success more broadly because they have less opportunity in the workplace? A portion of the survey addressed this question. When participants were asked how much they'd be willing to work if they had their "ideal job," the results were telling: Thirty percent of women were unwilling to work more than 40 hours per week in their dream career, while only 7 percent of men felt the same way.
"[These women] know they could be making a lot more money, but they have other things in their life," Lubinski said.
And they were perfectly happy with their decisions. Men and women in the study all reported positive outlooks on life and rated their life satisfaction high. In other words, men and women's different values or how they spent their time didn't seem to change how successful they thought they were.
“Most of the important things that happen in life involve tradeoffs, and this is what you’re seeing with this study."
"Most of the important things that happen in life involve tradeoffs, and this is what you’re seeing with this study," David C. Geary, a cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post in an email.
Geary said that this pattern of men aspiring for cultural success via job prestige and income (at a cost to their social and family life) and women investing more in their social and family life (at a cost to their professional achievements) is one that's seen throughout the world, and may be tied to an evolutionary predisposition related to marriage prospects and children.
Studies have found that women are more attracted to men who display outward signs that they are wealthy. This means some men might feel more pressure to achieve job prestige, to show they're capable of providing for a partner. But this pressure may also be an evolution of the economy, not just biology, as the cost of living increases.
As for the argument that women aren't given a choice in their current work lives, Geary isn't convinced -- especially in the case of the SMPY study, since the women reported being happy in general.
"People who are forced to do things they do not prefer are typically unsatisfied," he said. "If anything, men have fewer options than women -- that is, I suspect the social consequences of not being culturally successful are still larger for men, in terms of women's marriage preferences and in terms of how they are viewed by other men."
At the end of the day, there are many paths to a happy, meaningful life.
"People have different preferences. The important thing is to have opportunity and to follow your passion," Lubinski said. "For some people, 'having it all' means the right mix of things."
Lubinski also highlighted that there were individual differences among participants that didn't reflect the average view of their respective gender. There were plenty of women in the study who were working over 40 hours a week, making comparable incomes to men in their field and who were, according to Lubinski, "very, very famous." The study noted that both the male and female participants advanced society, but they took "different paths to their current highly productive and satisfying lives."
In fact, Lubinski said that the sex differences he and his colleagues found in the study were relatively small compared to the individual differences within each group of males and females. The findings, he hopes, will underscore the importance of equal opportunity, whether that means educating young people about the many career paths they can take or providing flexible work situations to welcome a more diverse work force.
After all, if employers in competitive fields don't make it easy or possible for high achievers to make themselves useful, the world could be missing out on the professional contributions and perhaps even life-changing innovations from "precocious" individuals looking to "have it all."
"It's important to give people opportunities to develop their talent to the extent that they want to, because we have a lot of men and women here that are making wonderful contributions," Lubinski said.
"When you have people at this ability level, what they could do in 20 hours a week is tremendous relative to a lot of people. I think there are going to be opportunities for them on the horizon that we can only fantasize about now."