In “Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office,” adolescent psychologist and author Lisa Damour explains how schools help boys build confidence while helping girls build competence—a trend that proves to be detrimental to girls later in life (and I’ve witnessed firsthand as a teen girl life coach).
Despite being smart, funny, ambitious, and bursting with potential, so many teens I work with are drowning in anxiety about their grades and futures. They’re terrified of being seen as annoying, dumb, or unlikeable by teachers and peers. They avoid having hard conversations—like telling their parents they no longer want to play a sport they hate or breaking up with a boyfriend they don’t like anymore—because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or be perceived as difficult. They’re straight-A students, and nice, “good girls”—and they’re unhappy and stressed trying to squeeze into society’s mold for them.
The confidence gap plaguing young girls is widespread. 7 in 10 girls believe they don’t measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school, and relationships with family and friends. Between 40-60% of elementary schoolgirls monitor their weight and the number of girls who would describe themselves as “confident” declines more than 25% in middle school. Girls with a GPA of 4.0 are the least likely to say what they thought or disagree with others because they wanted to be liked.
While the gender imbalance of low confidence negatively impacts girls individually, it also has huge societal ramifications by contributing to the women’s leadership gap. Research shows that most men display confidence and take risks, even if they are under-prepared and/or under-qualified. However, women generally tend to hold back from throwing their hat in the ring unless they are over-prepared and over-qualified, which is holding us back from the highest ranks of power—from applying for jobs to asking for a raise to running for office. As Damour cites, “Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men hold a staggering 95% of the top positions in the largest public companies,” and women still only make up about 25% of the US Congress. The confidence gap isn’t a “women’s issue;” it’s a threat to a thriving, equitable, and just society.
While there is enormous work to do at the structural and institutional level to advance gender equity, reducing the women’s confidence gap is one way to start closing the women’s leadership gap—and that pipeline starts with girls. Here are some practical tips for how to help girls overcome self-doubt, boost their confidence, and empower them to become the women leaders of tomorrow our world so desperately needs:
- Focus on her strengths and positive qualities: So often, girls feel like they can’t get anything right, but many times parents focus on the negative without even realizing it. Regularly telling her what you think she’s doing wrong doesn’t help, even if it drives you nuts. While her room may be messy and you wished she watched less Netflix, the entire world is telling your daughter she’s not doing or being enough; she doesn’t need to feel that way at home too. Point out the things she’s doing well, tell her what you admire about her, and let her know when you’re proud of her. Even something as simple as, “Thank you for making me laugh earlier! You’re so funny, and that brightened my day,” can go a long way.
- Notice her language: Many girls are riddled with self-doubt and have fierce inner critics. If she says something negative about her body, ask her what her body is doing for her; instead of worrying that her thighs are too big, talk about how having strong legs makes her such an awesome soccer player. If you hear a lot of “shoulds,” she’s likely a people-pleaser. Ask her why she feels like she “should” do something, and you may find she feels obligated to do things for other people because she’s afraid of disappointing others, not because she wants to. Teach her to say “excuse me” instead of “sorry.” Women and girls are trained to over-apologize excessively, so you can help her learn to save her “sorries” for when an apology is actually due.
- Create a safe space for her to use her voice: Many girls avoid speaking up for themselves or having difficult conversations because they fear being judged or hurting others’ feelings. Remember, they’re socialized to be friendly, polite, and take care of others before themselves. But this is a toxic if not dangerous mentality for girls to bring into womanhood. Create the space at home to ask for her opinion, seek her advice, or learn how to speak up for what she needs—and listen to what she has to say. If she asks for more private time, respect that boundary. The more she realizes that her voice matters, the more likely she’ll use it in the real world.
- Encourage her to take healthy risks: One of the most damaging side effects of low confidence is that it holds girls back from trying new things or taking healthy risks, and yet taking action is the only way to build confidence! Truly, it’s like a muscle that must be exercised and developed over time. To overcome this vicious catch-22, encourage her to get out of her comfort zone; start small by focusing on things that she’s naturally good at and interested in, and build from there. For instance, if she’s good at drawing and loves art, she could take painting lessons.
- Learn from failure: Let’s be honest; failing sucks. It can be painful and humiliating. But there’s always something to learn from it. So once your girl has had the chance to process her feelings around a set-back (don’t skip this part—it’s human to be sad or embarrassed about missing the game-winning goal!), help her identify something she’s learned about herself. No matter the outcome, making “mistakes” makes us stronger and teaches us valuable lessons along the way, and it’s how true leaders pick themselves up and keep forging their paths.
Overcoming the confidence gap is critical for young women and girls to lead thriving, successful lives. Not just for them, but the world at large.