How do math prodigies define success at 50?

"Men and women valued career choices, community, and family somewhat differently in constructing lives that were satisfying, yet both were equally happy with their outcomes," says Camilla Benbow. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Researchers have studied a group of mathematically talented people since they were adolescents in the early 1970s. Forty years later, researchers report that the group is extraordinarily accomplished and highly satisfied with their lives.

How they pursued and defined success, as well as career and family, varies according to their gender, however.

This conclusion comes from the most recent round of results from the largest scientific study of the profoundly gifted to date. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth is a longitudinal research project conducted at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development.

“For men and women alike, we found that those who were identified as talented at this early age have gone on to generate creative contributions, become leaders in their professions, earn high incomes, and be pleased with the quality of their lives,” says David Lubinski, professor of psychology and human development.

“This is the first study to document the career paths of gifted males and females over four decades in which women had meaningful high-level career options,” Lubinski says.

“Early manifestations of exceptional mathematical talent do lead to outstanding creative accomplishment and professional leadership, but with notable sex differences.”

Signs of success

Participants (1,037 males, 613 females) were identified in the early 1970s as gifted—in the top 1 percent of mathematical reasoning ability—at around age 13. The two groups, now ages 53 and 48, are well established in their careers and personal lives.

Thirty percent of the first group and 39 percent of the second group earned doctorates, compared to less than 2 percent of the US population. More than 4 percent had earned tenure at a major research university, 2.3 percent were top executives at “name brand” or Fortune 500 companies, and 2.4 percent were attorneys at major law firms or organizations.

Collectively they had published 85 books and 7,572 refereed academic articles and had secured 681 patents and $358 million in grants.

On measures of emotional well-being, life satisfaction, personal and career direction, and satisfaction with their relationships, both men and women had scores that were universally high.

STEM or stay at home?

The researchers observed differences when comparing the career paths of men and women. Men in the study were more likely to be CEOs or to be employed in information technology or fields associated with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (the so-called STEM fields).

Women were more often employed in general business, elementary and secondary education, and health care—or were homemakers. Women and men were about equally represented in fields like finance, medicine, and law. Roughly 90 percent of the men worked full time compared to 65 percent of the women.

Men were more highly compensated than women, with median incomes of about $140,000 compared to $80,000 for women. Women participants who were married tended to have spouses whose median incomes exceeded $100,000, whereas male participants who were married had spouses whose median income was between $20,000 and $26,000.

Women earned about the same amount regardless of their marital status, but men who were married earned significantly more than those who were unmarried.

How to divide time

One area of difference was in how men and women chose to allocate their time. Men almost overwhelmingly prioritized cultivating high-impact careers that require 50 or more hours per week, while the women defined success more broadly to include family and community investment.

Men reported devoting an average of 11 hours more per week to career development over the past 15 years than did women—51 hours per week versus 40 hours per week. Asked about their willingness to work more hours if given the opportunity to pursue their ideal career, nearly 100 percent of men expressed willingness to devote 40 or more hours per week to their ideal job, as compared to just 70 percent of women.

In answers to questions about their values, men valued full-time work, making an impact, and earning a high income. Women as a group valued part-time work more often, as well as community, family involvement, time for close relationships, and community service.

Men, on average, were more concerned with being successful in their work and felt that society should invest in them and their ideas, while women took a more communal approach to living and working. Men were more focused on advancing society through knowledge or the creation of concrete products, whereas women were more interested in keeping society vibrant and healthy.

Family pride

Regardless of work-related gender differences, both men and women overwhelmingly agreed that family was the most important factor required for a meaningful life. Both cited family as the aspect of their lives of which they were most proud. However, they differed in how they invested in family. Men focused more on making tangible contributions, while women more highly prioritized investing their time and emotional energy.

“What is most interesting about these latest findings is the number of variables at play,” says says study coauthor Camilla Benbow, dean of education and human development.

“Men and women valued career choices, community, and family somewhat differently in constructing lives that were satisfying, yet both were equally happy with their outcomes. Both genders used their intellectual abilities to create resources for themselves, and with those resources come choice and the ability to exercise preferences.

“It will be interesting, as time goes on, to observe whether these differences are continued in subsequent generations. We are already seeing, for example, that the academy has become more welcoming for women who wish to pursue careers in math-intensive sciences or engineering. Even the cohorts in our study had more career and life choices available to them than did their parents’ generation,” she says.

Read more in Psychological Science. Support for this study came from a John Templeton Foundation grant and a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Source: Vanderbilt University