Because the class of 2016 at my university had a fifteen percent acceptance rate, it’s pretty common for a conversation with my friends to turn into a speculation of why we were accepted.
“My parents both went here, so I’m a legacy,” one girl chirps.
“I’m a first generation college student,” another adds.
“I just showed a lot of demonstrated interest,” one friend jokes.
Never, however, in these conversations do any of us mention our SAT scores, high school GPAs, loaded resumes, and plethora of awards that were undoubtedly more important than any “demonstrated interest” we showed in our school. I am likewise just as guilty, quickly assuring everyone that I was only accepted because I’m a minority, not because I graduated in the top ten students of my high school class or received my Girl Scout Gold Award or had an internship when I was seventeen.
At the end of the school year, I spent a lot of time reflecting upon the wonderful nine months that comprised my freshman year of college, and it was easy to recount the many times I had engaged in this same conversation. However, in thinking back on words exchanged, I was surprised to discover that not once in these conversations can I recall a boy ever attempting to justify his acceptance into our competitive school. Instead, this fierce rationalization all came from girls, as we chose to explain away our college success with insignificant anomalies instead of admitting to ourselves and to each other that we are smart, talented individuals.
It turns out that the confidence gap between boys and girls that I witnessed this year is not uncommon in the classroom and academic pursuits. The American Association of University Women explored this topic profusely and sparked a conversation about gender equality in schools in their report, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America. After a rigorous process of surveying roughly 3,000 school children, the researchers concluded that while boys and girls begin elementary school with nearly equal levels of confidence and ability, by high school boys regularly display more confidence in their skills than girls, particularly in math and science, and furthermore are more likely to take action in demonstrating these talents, such as through speaking up in class or running for student government. Moreover, when asked about career goals, boys at every stage of adolescence are much more likely to aspire for bigger career dreams while girls are already privy to seeking out traditional female jobs, such as teachers and nurses.
While it would be easy to blame these discrepancies solely on peer interactions and classroom instruction, in truth, families and communities play just as large of a role in the confidence gap between boys and girls. For instance, a recent report by American University explored why more boys run for political office than girls. One of the most significant influences was family support, perhaps illustrated most clearly in one study where sixty-six percent of girls who reported any encouragement in running for office wanted to someday in comparison to the only twenty-one percent who received no support yet still held political ambition. The problem, though, is that girls in this study, compared to their male counterparts, consistently received less encouragement from both their mothers and fathers to even consider running and more blatant discouragement from both parents to stay out of politics altogether. If nobody is asking girls to dream bigger, then it is unsurprising that they’re not.
Instead, in order to close the confidence gap, girls need encouragement to boldly be leaders and lean into their careers and dreams. Beyond parental support, community organizations such as The Girl Scouts of the USA and Girls on the Run can serve as important places to inspire confidence in young girls. As an astounding testament to this, a recent study put on by a magazine entitled Inc concluded that eighty percent of female entrepreneurs and two-thirds of the current female members of Congress were once Girl Scouts. It is no coincidence that an organization whose sole mission lies in empowering and encouraging girls consistently produces female leaders who hold the necessary confidence to believe in themselves and their dreams. Because women today make up half the workforce, it is vital that girls are confident and prepared to take on these labor roles.
If I should have a daughter, I hope that by the time she reaches university, speculative conversations in the dining hall on why she and her friends were accepted into college will reflect equal confidence in ability from both her male and female peers. By presenting a single story about gender to adolescents in the classroom and our communities, we rob many girls – and boys – of the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Together, by encouraging girls to be confident and bold in school and in their careers, we can forge a better nation rooted in equality and diversity.