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.
What you can do to help.
So, what can you do to help your daughters, your sisters, your students, or the young women in your life that you are mentoring?
Firstly, encourage your girls, and make sure that you give them their dues. Girls are less likely to put their hand up for recognition – so, make sure you give them that pat on the back when they deserve it – and encourage them to pat themselves on the back more often than they do. Teach them that it’s okay to shine. Remember those strengths identified above.
Secondly, teach them to follow their skills and interests in their subject choices, and not choose subjects based on what others might say a girl should or shouldn’t do. Make sure that you are looking at her as an individual, that you are spending the time getting to know what her personal likes and dislikes are, and that she’s not just telling you what she thinks she ‘should’ say she’s into.
Listen: This Glorious Mess discuss another hot parenting topic when it comes to raising girls.
Thirdly, help them deal with anxiety about success and failure. Teach them that failure is a learning experience in itself and a terrific opportunity for growth. If students do not learn to deal with that anxiety, it can hold them back from working to their full potential and from enjoying school as much as possible. Help them deal with setbacks constructively, to take the lesson to be learned from that mistake and move on quickly.
If they can learn these things early in life, they are really well placed to achieve to potential through school – and beyond.
Professor Andrew Martin, BA (Hons), MEd (Hons), PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. He has conducted extensive research on the differing motivation and learning challenges faced by both girls and boys in education.