“Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men - and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence,” authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman claim in their book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know (2014). (1)
The issue for girls and women is the link between gender, opportunity and social outcomes. When compared with men, women do not consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they will do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities and IQ.
This disparity stems from gender norms and social pressures, and results in inequalities that hinder women’s potential.
While women remain underrepresented in salary and career seniority, and experience bullying, domestic violence and sexual harassment at greater rates than men, there is a need for places where girls can learn free of gender stereotyping and bias and be purposefully empowered to be the changemakers the world needs.
While Australian values reflect gender equality, the principle is not supported by the facts.
Unfortunately, research has illustrated repeatedly that girls experience gender bias in classrooms - with implicit biases in students and teachers privileging the contributions and achievements of boys, especially in STEM-related subjects, and eroding the confidence of girls.
This bias begins as early as preschool, with girls being relegated to helping roles by boys who take the lead in projects, or even experiencing inadvertent exclusion and discouragement by adults from traditionally male activities.
By primary school, gender gaps in attitudes towards maths and science are a widespread phenomenon. Boys are more likely than girls to ‘like’, be ‘confident’ about, be ‘engaged’ with, and ‘value’ mathematics and science, and this difference increases in high school years.
Confidence deficit is used to explain many things, from girls’ subject selection in high school to poor body image and the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles.
The trend of males overestimating their IQ, and women underestimating theirs, has been evidenced so universally across demographics and cultures, it resulted in the concept being coined the ‘male hubris, female humility’ effect by psychologist Adrian Furnham, and it is all related to self-esteem and confidence.
When girls undervalue their intelligence in school, they tend to make self-limiting course selections, such as avoiding male-dominated STEM fields or subject matter perceived as too challenging.
Both ‘confidence culture’ and toxic self-responsibility and wellness culture - societal phenomena that espouse self-possession and self-confidence as a cure-all formula for girls and women to overcome the hurdles of inequity - imply that there is something innately lacking in females, something that requires fixing.
The problem is not with women and girls, it is about disrupting the gendered discrimination that perpetuates inequality in society and results in lower levels of self-esteem and confidence for females.
Compelling research conducted in all-female environments suggests there is no confidence gap in these all-female environments for girls and women. In single-sex university classes, all-girls schools and single-sex sports tournaments, females unequivocally display higher levels of confidence, assertiveness and self-efficacy.
Hands up for Gender Equality,2 a 2018 study led by Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, found that girls’ school students are matched in confidence with boys’ school students. After surveying almost 10,000 Australian students of single-sex schools, the researchers identified no significant difference in overall self-efficacy between the genders.
How is this achieved when broader population studies repeatedly point to higher confidence in males?
Several contributing features of the participating girls’ schools were noted: leadership development, the absence of gender comparisons, and strong participation in team activities, such as sports and debating.
In equally defining research designed to test the academic outcomes and risk-taking preferences of males and females in single-sex and co-ed environments, Professor Alison Booth, Professor of Economics and a Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University,3 concluded just “one hour a week of single-sex education benefits females” and that “the evidence is gathering that women in single-gender classes benefit, and they benefit significantly”.
Girls and women generally rate their self-esteem significantly lower than boys and men, a difference that emerges early in adolescence, presumably when they become increasingly aware of the expectations placed on them by a society still clinging to gendered roles.
Historical social psychology research examining the parental perception of their children’s intelligence has found time and time again that male children are rated as more intelligent than female children by parents of any gender. Despite evidence from cognitive psychology to the contrary, it seems, deep down, many parents still think boys are smarter.
Given this evidence, it is not surprising that girls and women have lower levels of confidence, self-esteem and self-worth when a reductive societal attitude continues to underestimate and undervalue all women in a girl’s life.
This underrating extends past mothers, sisters, aunts and friends to highly competent female professionals, sportspeople and politicians. Is it any wonder then that the doubt creeps in?
Conversely, boys are imbued with a sense of confidence, safe in the repeated experience that a mediocre performance can still guarantee success - as exemplified by the relative success of male role models whose failings are consistently overlooked, while women must double down to achieve the same results.
How can we build the confidence of girls? A girls’ school student, graduate or teacher would answer, “in an all-girls learning environment”.
This is because it is already a reality in girls’ schools across the world, where leaders and educators are acutely aware of the dangers of a self-fulfilling prophecy and purposefully educate students to defy gender norms and social pressures, and importantly retain their self-confidence, grit and determination throughout their school years and into their careers and future life successes.
They also know that the self-fulfilling prophecy works in the reverse, and a self-fulfilling prophecy that envisions future success, empowerment and a resilience that cuts through the glass ceiling, in addition to securing wellbeing and achievement, is more than possible.
Research has confirmed that girls’ schools provide safe spaces where students feel willing to compete, take calculated risks and reject gender stereotypes.
Ask a group of girls about their all-girls school and you will hear a familiar story – girls’ schools are places where girls can be themselves, and feel supported and confident. They are able to escape the gendered put-downs and simply be away from the poorly regulated adolescent male gaze when trying to succeed in their studies.
As one Year 12 student put it: “You’re able to be more open… everyone has an equal chance to speak up and be heard.” And on boys: “There’s plenty of opportunities to socialise with boys outside of school but at school my focus is on learning.”
At a girls’ school, all the leadership roles are held by girls and leadership is cultivated as a real and valid choice. Whether girls continue that trajectory after leaving school is a matter of choice, but at least the pathways have been normalised.
Girls attending all-girls schools remain relatively free of gendered stereotypes - and the damage they can inflict on strong, capable young women in politics, business, sports, education, and their own homes.
That is how all-girls schools manage to retain and build the confidence of girls in a gender-biased world; they purposefully create an environment where students grow into strong, confident young women, ready to insist on the lives they deserve.
In sum, the role that girls’ schools can play in advancing the aspirations and achievements of women cannot be underestimated.
Research shows that students educated in girls’ schools are more confident, more likely to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, and more likely to take up leadership roles. Girls’ schools provide a supportive community where expectations are high, aspirations unlimited, andthe development of self-efficacy and confidence paramount.
Perhaps most importantly, girls’ schools turn the table on gender stereotypes, providing a learning environment that is free from gender bias, stereotyping and social pressure from boys - and this can help close the confidence gap.
By Loren Bridge
Regional Executive Director, Australasia
International Coalition of Girls’ Schools
1. Kay, K. and Shipman, C. (2014). The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know. New York, NY HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
2. Fitzsimmons, T.W., Yates, M. S., & Callan, V. (2018). Hands Up for Gender Equality: A Major Study into Confidence and Career Intentions of Adolescent Girls and Boys. Brisbane, Qld: AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace – The University of Queensland.https://www.agec.org.au/national-gender-equality-education-program-for-high-schools/
3. Booth, A. (2014). Could girls be better off in single-sex schools?, The Sydney Morning Herald,https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/could-girls-be-better-off-in-singlesex-schools-20141011-1146ro.html