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The ‘confidence gap’ isn’t just holding back women at work. It’s a phenomenon that starts way back in childhood. In their bestselling book The Confidence Code For Girls, authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay conducted a survey of over 1,400 eight to 18-year-old girls and their parents and guardians. They found confidence levels for boys and girls are pretty much the same until age eight. But between the ages of eight and 14, girls’ confidence drops by 30 per cent. We sought advice from a handful of experts about overcoming this gap and raising courageous, confident girls.
Illustration: Patti Andrews
As tennis champion Billie Jean King once said, “You’ve gotta see it to be it”. It doesn’t matter what gender your mentor may be, but it’s important for young girls to have someone who will encourage them, listen to them and validate them. Having a variety of mentors and role models shows there is not just one blueprint for success – there are many – and sometimes you have to fail a few times before you finally succeed. Ruth Carr, executive director of Australian Science Innovations and a former scientist, runs Curious Minds, a six-month program that identifies girls from all walks of life to participate in STEM activities and be mentored by successful women working in STEM fields. “I didn’t have a mentor, I was working in a very male-dominated field, and I had no females around me whatsoever,” she said. “It was hard to see where my future would be in a very male-dominated field, and this is what all these female mentors want to reverse. They want to show these girls that there are women out there that have successful, fulfilling careers, to show them there are pathways you can follow and they will be supported through that process.”
Many girls are raised to have impeccable manners, to be quiet and not cause a fuss. “Girls learn early on to take care of other people’s emotions and needs first, and as women, we often become people pleasers,” said Marina Passalaris, founder of Beautiful Minds, Australia’s leading provider of self-esteem and confidence education for young boys and girls. Telling a young girl that she has a right to be heard is probably one of the most powerful things that you can do, because it encourages her to speak up from a young age and leads to less social issues down the track.” Teaching young girls how to find their voice not only helps them defend themselves against the schoolyard and workplace bullies, but it gives them communication skills that can help them contribute in the classroom, work in a team, and form relationships with others. Often the best way to make a shy person break out of their shell is to encourage them to do something that will challenge them, like joining a drama club, debating team, band, choir, sports team or fundraiser.
Make sure you remind them that perfection is unattainable, and they should focus on what they can achieve, rather than what they can’t. In Episode 6 of the Tilted podcast, Jennifer Ayer, Head of the Girls’ Middle School in the US emphasised the importance of focusing on their learning rather than their results. “I think it’s really important to focus, whether you’re raising boys or girls, not on what they got on the test or quiz, but on what they’re learning and what interests them,” she said. “It is important that they understand your own educational journey, and that it was not without bumps and struggles, and that you were a beginner at subjects too. I think it’s even better if you can model being a beginner at something, so why not start playing the guitar or piano or learning a language as an adult to show your child what it feels like to be a beginner, and that it takes practice to master things.”
Rather than pushing her to pursue activities that you think she will enjoy, let her decide for herself. Instead of expressing doubt, remind her that you believe in her and will back her all the way. “I think it’s important to take an interest in things that interest them, to engage with them in those things,” Ayer said. “No matter how quirky their interests are, there is real benefit to pursuing them. If they want to perfect icing a cake, and you think it would be more important for them to go to robotics camp, let them ice the cake, let them learn how to do that, let them research that, because the things they learn about agency and about pursuing their interests and about how to get better at something, it almost doesn’t matter what they’re learning about. And so try to free them to pursue their interests, and support them in pursuing their ideas, and engage with them in their ideas.”
It’s very important to encourage girls to challenge themselves and take healthy risks, no matter how big or small those acts may be. “Understand that if your daughter is comfortable, she’s not in the right place,” Claire Shipman, co-author of The Confidence Code for Girls, said. “You’ve got to push her out of her comfort zone. That might be literally walking to the library, it might be walking to the restaurant, it might be cooking an egg and messing it up 400 times. There are a million different ways to force her to use that risk-taking muscle, but the formula for confidence is doing, a little bit of failing, a lot of learning, and eventually, mastery.”
While it’s important for parents and teachers to encourage girls to pursue their dreams and take risks, it’s just as important to teach them that failure is normal. While many girls are perfectionists and don’t take risks because they have a fear of failure, setbacks help us to build resilience, confidence, and allow us to grow. “We have a tendency as parents and carers to say, ‘You’re such a good girl’,” Passalaris said. “We need to be able to allow girls to fail, and to be okay with it. I think it’s really important for parents or carers to share their own mistakes with young girls and to let them know that talking about failure or mistakes is not a bad thing, and it’s through them that we actually learn and become stronger individuals.”
From an early age, girls are often taught to be positive, nurturing, polite, and to put the needs of others before their own. However, the adverse effects of this mean that young girls have trouble expressing their own true feelings, and feel unable to speak up about her own needs and wants. “Girls learn early on to take care of other people’s emotions and needs first, as women we often become people pleasers,” Passalaris said. “I think it’s important for girls to share a range of emotions. Telling a young girl that she has a right to be heard is probably one of the most powerful things that you can do, because it encourages her to speak up from a young age and leads to less social issues down the track.”
While the proliferation of social media has been a significant factor in girls’ confidence drop as they reach puberty, girls also pick up on the behaviours and habits of their parents at home. “I think parents need to place their own self-worth and body image in a very positive way,” Passalaris said. “So from a very young age, a girl knows that it’s okay to back yourself, because they hear it from mum or dad, that it’s okay to love your body and to be happy with the shape of your body no matter what size it is.”
They might hate you for it, but as billions of parents have said over the millennia, it’s for their own good. “You need to control their social media consumption and their screen time, because this is something that’s going to be an ongoing problem,” Passalaris said. “The only solution to it is parents and carers having a tighter control of media consumption. Stop making excuses that they can’t limit that, because you can.”
It’s important to remind girls that their feelings matter and are heard. “Try to not be judgmental of your daughter’s feelings,” Rachel Simmons, best-selling author of Curse of the Good Girl and Enough As She Is and co-founder of Girls Leadership, said. “Tell her that her feelings matter and that it’s okay to share them, obviously not in an aggressive way, but that it’s okay to have feelings, because when girls take their feelings seriously, they won’t second-guess themselves. They’re more confident and more comfortable with who they are and how to deal with their problems. But if a parent is instead constantly telling a girl that she’s overreacting, or she’s being dramatic, or that she doesn’t feel the way she says she is, then that’s not going to be good for her.”
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