We Need to Change How We’re Socializing and Educating Young Girls
I have never considered myself a particularly confident person. From schoolwork to sports to socializing, I have always been self-deprecating. And yet, this has never quite bothered me. I don’t consider myself to struggle with low confidence; it is simply a part of me, and many other people I know.
Perhaps my inclination to be self-deprecating is because I have always associated confidence with a negative connotation—arrogance. And yet, as I continuously read that self-confidence is often the key to success, I have been wondering if my definition of confidence is a bit distorted, and how it has taken on such a negative value in my head.
And it is becoming more and more clear to me that for women— especially women in the workforce— confidence often is seen as arrogant, unattractive, and certainly not “womanly”. And as a result, it is becoming harder and harder for women to acquire.
In their book “The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman discovered a startling gap between successful female and male self-confidence. It didn’t matter how successful the woman was-- on average, her self-confidence was lower than her male counterparts.
My first reaction to this? Anger. Bitterness, resentment. Directed towards all confident males. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what I was blaming them for, but the accusatory feelings were hard to deny. We are no less talented than them, I thought. How dare they?
And yet, is it justified to blame men, when women are the ones doubting themselves? Whose fault can that be?
Where It All Begins
As a college student, I can’t say I have extensive experience as a woman in the workplace. What I have been exposed to, though, if subtly at the time, are the various ways girls are socialized in comparison to boys from very young ages. And these trends, I believe, cannot be separated from the disheartening confidence gap that exists today, despite female success.
At some point in elementary school, I heard the stale, overused stereotype that boys are better at math than girls. Ever since we were little, writing and reading has come more naturally to my sister and me. My brother was always a math whiz, and still is. Nothing is inherently wrong with this sibling dynamic-- it just so happens that our trio happens to perfectly fit the cliché that boys are better at math. And it has always incessantly bothered me for reasons I still can’t pinpoint.
I think on some subconscious level, I sense some need to prove to the world that women can be excellent at math. As if we need the justification, because it is inherently deviant from our nature.
If my sister and I were better at math, we would be helping to confirm that this stereotype definitely isn’t true. Instead, in the back of my head, I feel as though we are continually reinforcing writing and reading as soft, womanly skills. As if we are contributing to some decline in feminine progress.
Yes, it is well known that this theory is less of a biological truth and more of a huge oversimplification. And yet, you can’t deny its effects. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true-- the language still exists, and the remnants of this assumption still penetrate every corner of society. After all, why are there dozens of Women in STEM campaigns? Why do we need to justify and fight for more female representation in IT? Stereotypes aren’t merely idle words; they explain why women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs.
The Ladylike Dilemma
These stereotypes hardly stop with academic skills. From birth, our society arbitrarily labels certain character traits as feminine or masculine.
From a very young age, us girls are taught to be ladylike. In elementary school, girls learn to sit in our seats, to be calm. To have good manners. Our school system undoubtedly rewards kids who remain quietly in their seats, without fidgeting or chattering. We praise girls when they are calm, polite, and helpful. When they do what they are told. “Ladylike” is to be accommodating, forgiving—not bold or defiant.
The effects of this socialization, I’ve realized, are overwhelming to try and trace. And sadly, I find myself reading about new female challenges every day that can inevitably traced to our upbringings, especially in the classroom.
Take ADHD, for example. I took a class on disabilities this past semester, and while spending a few weeks researching the complexities of ADHD, I couldn’t stop thinking about the various articles that had briefly mentioned gender bias in ADHD diagnoses. ADHD is now the most prevalent psychiatric illness of young people in America. Three times as many boys are diagnosed with ADHD as girls. And, girls get diagnosed on average 5 years later than boys—age 12 versus boys at age 7. These statistics seem to imply that boys are simply more prone to ADHD. Yet, no biological evidence explains this gender disparity, and new evidence shows that girls are simply less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD because their symptoms present differently than do boys.
Without a diagnosis and adequate treatment, people with ADHD are plagued with feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth—and for girls, these feelings are more likely to persist long into adulthood. Several articles that I read point out that girls are more likely to exhibit an inattentive form of ADHD, whereas boys are more likely to show the hyperactive side. But, because classrooms and offices and family structures have absorbed ADHD has a predominantly male disorder, characterized by hyperactivity, thousands of girls continue to struggle silently.
Girls have been socialized to please, and simultaneously, to refrain from disrupting. No wonder girls are less likely to be disruptive, and more likely to be spacey and inattentive. The label “ladylike,” inevitably projected onto a little girl both in the classroom and at home, does not offer room for disruption. Silence is more acceptable, more tolerated. While teachers are understandably drawn to little boys fidgeting and rule breaking, too many girls continue to struggle silently.
I don’t think that it is inherently bad to teach girls the value in politeness and obedience. But to reserve these traits for girls—to expect them of girls, rather than boys—creates a large disadvantage for future females. And, I think it sends an implicit message to girls about their greater purpose—or lack thereof—in society.
Paving a Path for Submission
When it comes to working later in life, gender socialization only takes on a new form, and it manifests, I believe, in the confidence gap in the workplace. No wonder women continue to feel inadequate. After all, obedience is hardly sufficient to be successful in our society. It is not as if they are actually less capable than men. Rather, business necessitates assertiveness, boldness-- skills that may seem unnatural and deviant after years of schooling that encouraged the opposite. It becomes socially unacceptable to stray from the nurturing persona women, especially mothers, are expected to have. Confidence is not only difficult to attain; it isn’t necessarily something women even want to have.
Sadly, this female trend of feeling inadequate isn’t hard to believe. The KPMG Women’s Leadership Study, a comprehensive survey of more than 3,000 professional and college women, reveals that eighty-six percent of the women surveyed were taught be “nice to others” growing up, but less than 50 percent were taught leadership lessons.
It is often all too easy to learn that more women feel like frauds in the workplace than men and respond with sheer anger-- bitter resentment. That is, in fact, exactly how I feel. Why do more of them have the privilege of self-confidence, and not us? And why does this trend continue to persist in 2018?
A Vow to Not Blame the Men
At the end of the day, though, blame won’t accomplish anything. For one thing, to blame a person is less likely to generate change in behavior and more likely to induce resentment and anger in response. No one likes to be blamed, and I highly doubt the majority of people would respond productively to blame. And, it feels pointless to blame men for being born into a larger system where they have a smoother path to acquiring the self-confidence and credibility necessary for success.
By blaming men, we continue to form a thick, impenetrable boundary between men and women. We can’t plead for equality, while continuing to highlight our differences with hostility. To use language that perpetuates “them” versus “us”. But we don’t want more division, and we don’t need more useless comparisons that form gender biases.
It is more productive to examine what patterns of behavior create these stereotypes and lead to less women diagnosed with ADHD, less women in STEM, less confidence in the workplace, and dozens of other gaps that I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of.
It is more productive to try and understand why women don’t feel good enough, rather than to blame the men around them. And these feelings of inadequacy did not suddenly arise. No, they have been cultivated for years, beginning in classrooms where little girls are taught to be ladylike and where “soft” skills like writing and reading become reserved for women. But we can break the cycle now, for future females, when learn that associating femininity with obedience fails to teach little girls what it means to be bold and resilient.