I often wonder at what point in my life my confidence started to wobble. “This book is too complex for you. You are too young to understand it”, opines my dad’s authoritative voice dissuading my young self. “Anger doesn’t suit you”, echoes my parents’ rebuke to me as a girl. As a young woman, I recall waking up one morning feeling shame and frantically scanning my memory to identify the situation that had triggered that emotion, only to realise there was none. Nothing except the deep-rooted feeling of having done something “wrong”, of being ‘flawed’, of never living up to the expectations of what it means to be a “good girl”. Did my self-assurance snap after hearing one too many subtly or overtly undermining comments at school or at home? Was I trying but failing to copy the demeanour of female role models around me? Was I born this way? How different are things for other women and for girls today?
Interviewing some forty women over recent months for a book I am writing about emotional empowerment, I noticed how prevalent self-doubt was. Most women’s reaction when asked to share their opinions was to question their ability to add value, regardless of their age, level of education, ethnicity, affluence, job level or origin in the global north or south. Did they have little confidence in their potential to add value or were their personal expectations of what this meant too high? My guess is perhaps both. But at what age do we start developing self-doubt? Is it during childhood or adolescence that this uninvited guest creeps in? Or does it start at birth or even before?
Different research pinpoints different starting points in girls’ declining confidence. According to one US study, girls’ self-confidence plummets by 30% between the ages of eight and 14. It identifies that at 14, girls experience their lowest levels of self-assurance, 27% lower than boys’. Some evidence indicates that this confidence gender gap that opens around puberty often remains throughout adulthood. However, another study suggests that the gap appears earlier; that by 6 or 7, girls are 20-30% less likely to assume that people deemed highly intelligent are of their own gender.
According to one US study, girls’ self-confidence plummets by 30% between the ages of eight and 14. It identifies that at 14, girls experience their lowest levels of self-assurance, 27% lower than boys’.
Surveys conducted by AKAS among 8-11-year-olds in two primary schools in London between 2016 and 2019 revealed one area where girls’ results were uniformly worse: girls consistently believed less than boys that “working hard at school will help me when I grow up”. Recent research in the UK has also uncovered that 73% of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 think that women have to work much harder than men to succeed.
I wonder whether this weakened belief among girls in merit and hard work being enough to help them thrive starts around the point when behaving “like a girl” becomes an insult. And whether this feeling of being “less” is exacerbated at school when subjects such as art, music and drama, which girls are up to twice as likely to enjoy as boys, get deemed less important than other subjects. Whether the encouragement that from a young age parents and teachers frequently give girls for their people-pleasing, perfectionistic behaviour leads to them adopting impossibly high standards for themselves.
I increasingly believe that lack of confidence among girls is also conditioned and carried through our intergenerational memory. Research into my own family tree laid bare the crushing reality of the women’s inferiority – all bar a handful of my hardworking female ancestors were silent and illiterate, in stark contrast to their male siblings, fathers and uncles. Perhaps the feeling of being “less” is absorbed epigenetically by girls, passing down through the generations.
But there is a silver lining: girls show extraordinary resilience in their education. Everywhere across the developed world, girls outperform boys. AKAS’ surveys in London primary schools also revealed that girls enjoyed learning and reading more than boys. I sometimes look at the past with a sense of missed opportunity but at the future with a sense of excitement. I deliberate over how much easier my path as a woman might have been if I had been alerted to this “less than”/”not good enough” bias as a girl; if I had known that it is a by-product of centuries-old universal pro-male cultural norms rather than a result of my inadequate personality. At the same time, I feel excitement that parents and educators can now raise girls’ awareness of these biases that affect them negatively and have the potential do so formally as part of the school curriculum. It feels empowering to imagine the life girls could have if the bias-free voice inside their heads told them that they are good enough, that they should trust themselves and that, whatever their outer shell, their intrinsic worth and the value they can generate, are limitless.