Why do girls loose confidence? It is an important question and one that Claire Shipman and Katty Kay have been exploring (https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=27408). As small children and up until the age of 8 years old they found there was no difference in confidence between boys and girls. But between the ages of 8 and 14 this changes. As the authors note “As girls approach adolescence, that openness to risk and failure becomes buried under an avalanche of biological and cultural signals telling them to be careful, value perfection, avoid risk at all possible costs.” How can we take those aspects of the female brain which can be excellent at the strategic thinking and temper worrying about the consequences.
Now this is not to be critical of strategic thinking, empathy and caution; appreciating the need to run away or hide from marauding beasts will have helped our survival over the years. But when girls (and women for that matter) don’t feel confident to take risks because the results may be less than perfect so much opportunity for growth and development is lost. And yet it is not just the females themselves, others can expect perfection from them while tolerating less than perfect from a male peer. How many women have been frustrated in the workplace when their as requested perfectly executed document which has been slaved over for weeks is given scant notice compared to a quick and dirty presentation on some new area by a male colleague, prepared in a fraction of the time. Given there is seemingly often little reward for perfection what is the worst that could happen if you handed over the document earlier and less perfect; yes you may get some critique and things to change but you might not, indeed you might get commended for the rapid turn around of urgent material.
One of the first things I would routinely have to do with new female members of staff was drag off them, their first reports for me. Constant refrains of “but its not ready” with every minutia being covered. Now I had an advantage, I was female, I had been there, done it and got the tee-shirt, but it has reinforced to me the need to try to help break this cycle earlier; these were women in their thirties and they were still doing this. But when you consider all outside influences it is probably not surprising and in a digital age that perfection message is reinforced making the situation worse.
Imagine you are nine and there is a big tree in your back garden. You have a twin bother and he sets off to the top of the tree because it’s there and he can. An adult, possibly dad, will come out and be proud of his boy’s achievement, what’s a few scratches and scuffed knees. Now you see your brother and think I want a bit of that and off you go to set forth up the tree. “Be careful, don’t fall, don’t hurt yourself, do you think you can make it all the way to the top, do you need a hand.” Inadvertently we feed the developing worry centre of the female brain. Add to this the growing pressure from social media to be perfect and taking risks and being different becomes ever more challenging. So girls stop, they become more cautious and all that potential gets stalled.
As adults if we can recognise this risk aversion in ourselves we can work to overcome it. So for example in my case the world did not coming crashing down when I said no to some additional work because I was already busy. That one small action made me feel empowered, inside perfectionist me was crying yes yes I can do it, but hard as it was I ignored her. But we also need to help those younger than us; we need to praise difference, stop unfair criticism and constantly encourage girls to be themselves, to be unique, be risk taking. Because for every bump in the road they encounter they will develop the skill of resilience and with this their confidence will grow.
Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Marie Curie, Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, Emmaline Pankhurst to name but a few, were/are all risk takers and look what they have achieved.