By Loren Bridge
“Wouldn’t it be nice if, as parents, educators and a society, we could build the confidence of girls and young women to a level where they believe in themselves and are free of [those] doubts?” asked Griffith University’s David Reilly in a recent article.
While Australian values reflect gender equality, the principle isn’t supported by the facts. Unfortunately, research has illustrated repeatedly that girls experience gender bias in co-ed 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 in co-ed schools — boys are more likely than girls to ‘like’, be ‘confident’ about, be ‘engaged’, 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 under-representation of women in senior leadership roles.
According to Reilly the trend of males overestimating their IQ, and women underestimating theirs, has been evidenced so “universally” across samples and cultures, it resulted in the concept being coined the ‘male hubris, female humility’ effect, and it’s all related to self-esteem and confidence.
He also reminds us of the power of “intellectual self-image” as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, warning that “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’s 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 our 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 deficit in girls and women in all-female environments. In single-sex university classes, all-girls schools and single-sex sport tournaments, females unequivocally display higher levels of confidence, assertiveness and self-efficacy.
Hands up for Gender Equality, a 2018 study led by Terence Fitzsimmons, found that girls’ school students are matched in confidence with boys in boys’ schools. After surveying almost 10,000 Australian students of single-sex schools, they identified no significant difference in overall self-efficacy between the genders. Self-efficacy is directly linked to exactly the sort of intellectual (self) esteem Reilly explored in his study.
And 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 sport 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 at school and university, Professor Alison Booth, Professor of Economics and a Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University 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”.
Reilly writes that 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. “On this basis” the researchers reasoned that self-esteem could explain why women underestimate their intelligence.
Historical social psychology research examining 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 sex. Despite evidence from cognitive psychology to the contrary, it seems, deep down, many parents still think boys are smarter.
Given this evidence, it’s 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.
To answer the question posed by Reilly, “Wouldn’t it be nice if … we could build the confidence of girls …?” , a girls’ school student, graduate or teacher might answer “yes, actually, it is ‘nice’”. Because it’s already a reality in girls’ schools across the world, where — like Reilly — 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 success.
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 not only 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’ll hear a familiar story – girls’ schools are places where girls can be themselves, 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 at a student leadership conference 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 for girls. 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’s how girls' schools manage to retain and build the confidence of girls in our gender-biased world; they purposefully create an environment where students grow into strong, confident young women, ready to insist on the lives they deserve.
Loren Bridge is the Executive Officer of the Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia.