Today, on the International Day of the Girl, it is important that we take stock of the barriers facing girls, as well as their strengths and opportunities.
Much of the focus of today is rightly on girls in the developing world. But in our own part of the world, girls are often bombarded with messages about who they are, who they should be, and what they can and cannot do in ways that can impact them in much of their lives.
I first looked at this issue in 2004, and most recently revisited it in 2015, and I can tell you that while the world is changing rapidly, there are some constants in girls’ academic lives.
Some of these constants are very positive. For example, girls tend to be well organised, try hard, place high value and importance on school, ask for help when needed, persist in the face of difficulty, and perform well in tasks involving reading and writing. These are girls’ strengths that must be sustained and celebrated.
However, there are some consistent findings that are not so positive. For example, girls tend to be significantly more anxious than boys are about their academic life, and less likely to take on academic challenges if fearful of making mistakes. In fact, in our research girls’ anxiety scores are more than 10 per cent higher than those of boys.
Also, when girls experience a setback or mistake at school, they are more likely to struggle with it than boys, to beat themselves up about it too much and for too long.
Further, the ‘imposter syndrome’ that plagues many successful women is often borne in girlhood. Whereas boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities, girls will often underestimate theirs. Their perception of inadequate competence can make them more likely to dwell on their shortcomings, and less likely to take credit for success.
At the same time, rather than making decisions about their schooling based on what they are interested in, girls can make subject decisions around what they think is ‘appropriate’ for girls. And sometimes, schools can reinforce this decision-making process.