One day I was meeting with a small group of smart young women. One of them was not only well-educated, beautiful and articulate but also a gifted athlete competing at national levels. Yet she balked at the suggestion that she was a leader. I was stunned.
Having watched her lead in countless formal and informal settings I would have assumed she viewed herself as such. In that nanosecond the light bulb went on for me. If this talented, bright, well loved young woman was struggling with confidence what must be going on for other women
Ironically bright women are even more likely to struggle with low self-esteem. A 2008 report by the Girl Scouts of America found that 7 out of 10 girls aged 8 to 17 have negative opinions about themselves regarding their looks, school performance or relationships, the majority reporting that they felt insecure or unsure of themselves as a result.
“Those with GPA’s higher than 4.0 were the least likely to say what they thought or disagree with others, because they wanted to be liked… Girl competence does not equal girl confidence. Nor does it equal happiness, resilience or self-worth.”
Receiving her high school degree and being accepted by a university will not necessarily translate into a confidence booster either. In fact, entering “college, she will more likely mark herself lower than men on nearly every measure of intellectual ability (despite no measurable differences in actual ability).”
Surely the maturity gained by experience and successes will build that confidence up during her university years we speculate! However research suggests that when she graduates she will not only be less confident than her male peers but also less confident than when she started her degree!
Even in the workplace low confidence is “a general trait … even of very senior women. They are not yet convinced that they deserve all the opportunities open to them.”
What!?! That is crazy making!!
And it affects our ability to influence our world. Another study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, of 4,000 American children, found that the greatest single barrier to leadership reported by girls was a lack of self-confidence in their own skills and competencies.
Ironically, the same study found that girls believe the three qualities needed to be a good leader are a positive attitude (86%), the ability to listen (85%), and confidence (85%).
Even at a young age we know confidence is important and that the lack of it holds us back. There is something important to be learned here because there is a close link between a woman’s perceived self-efficacy and her career decisions / achieving the goals that are important to her.
For example, Jessica Grounds, cofounder of Running Start says that her team quickly discovered that the ambitious young women who come to them for help in running for office are not lacking the skill to do so but the self-belief that they can. We know that people with higher levels of confidence are more apt to get involved in all spheres of life and leadership and to persevere through the inevitable obstacles that we encounter in life and leadership.
All of this is sending a strong message: We know confidence is important – and we think we don’t have it!
Some of this is a result of the inner critic who lives in our head, telling us that we are too much or not enough. Too tall or too short. Too athletic or too brainy. Too loud or too quiet. Too girly or too masculine. Too sensitive or too strong. After 30 plus years of meeting with young women I cannot help but wonder – surely not every one of us is too much or not enough!
Where does this low confidence come from?
It starts early.
According to clinical psychologist Robin F. Goodman, “Girls’ self-esteem peaks when they are nine years old, then takes a nose dive.” She says that self esteem drops in the pre-teen years because there is “a shift in focus — the body becomes an all consuming passion and barometer of worth.” 9 Did you catch that? Nine years old!! When I first read this startling number I couldn’t help but think of all the precocious 3-9 year old girls I knew. Then I thought of all the talented young women I knew who are struggling with low confidence. Doesn’t it make you wonder what happens in between?
And if anything can be done to reverse this disturbing trend? This is real. “By age six, anxiety will be twice as prevalent among girls as boys. As she enters adolescence she will be twice as likely as her brother to suffer from depression. She will perceive stress more… get less sleep. Her self-esteem will drop across a range of domains: in sports, appearance, and self-satisfaction to name a few… by late adolescence, her self-compassion will decline to its lowest level of any group of youth.”
Not only will she experience deeper drops in self-esteem, she will take longer to rebound than her male counterparts. A 2017 study of twelve thousand fifth through twelfth-grade girls in the USA found that the number of girls who describe themselves as confident declines more than twenty-five percent throughout middle school bottoming out at grade nine and sticking there throughout high school. The good news is that confidence 11 can be built up again. Yet even here we must proceed with caution. To suggest that girls must work to become more confident puts the onus back on them, creating one more thing they have to excel at, when in reality it is the culture of families, schools, workplaces and the public forum that must ultimately change!
Until it does what can we do for our girls?
- Celebrate the courageous acts she takes. For some girls this will be taking on a new role or speaking up in class, for others it may be getting out of bed some mornings. Acknowledge that you see and admire their courage.
- Celebrate the courageous acts of others. Make stories about brave women and girls a normal part of your conversation.
- Discuss issues of self-esteem and low confidence enough to normalize it. Many girls struggle thinking that they are the only one dealing with this stuff.
- Teach her to fail and try again. Prepare her for this with experiences that almost require and help to normalize failure and starting over – designing things, perfecting new recipes or prototypes, computer programming… It is the fear of failure that paralyzes. Once we realize we can fail and survive our confidence rebounds.
- Talk about confidence inhibitors and confidence builders and coach her on any that most influence her.
- Demonstrate confidence yourself. The research substantiates that low confidence in parents is a contributing factor to the ways girls think about themselves.
- Stress fun over perfection.
- Stress moral courage over popularity.
- Celebrate the courageous acts she does… did I say that already? I can’t stress it enough. Remind her of just how brave she is with authentic examples you have seen in her.
Ellen is the Director of the Leadership Studio at Muskoka Woods. She holds an MA in Leadership and Management and is the author of Brave Women: Building Bridges to Transformation, a Compendium.