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Fighting the programming: self-confidence and equal achievement

In college, a friend conducting a survey for her A level Psychology class asked a range of girls to name a strong female role model. When she came to me, I hadn’t got a clue. Finally I came up with Anita Roddick. Not because she had particularly influenced me, but because it was acknowledged that she was a Strong Female Role Model.

“Anita Roddick,” sighed my friend. “Everyone seems to say her.”

So we come to another International Women’s Day, and the release of further depressing studies showing that women still make up only 13.7% of the boards of top European companies. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, 59% of European university graduates are women, but 82% of the continent’s full university professors are men.

Of course, we’re way beyond the days women being written off as less intelligent. Perhaps the answer lies in studies such as Stereotype susceptibility in children: effects of identity activation on quantitative performance (Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001), which showed that girls performed worse in traditionally male-dominated subjects, such as maths, when their gender had been highlighted beforehand.

If others give up hope on you and saddle you with lowered expectations, however baseless their reasons, it makes it doubly hard not to give up on yourself. If we really want to normalise the idea of women, or any under-represented group, in positions of power, authority and respect, we need to start by fostering the self-confidence that enables women to believe their gender isn’t the deciding factor.

Take the oft-lamented pay gap. It’s just sort of accepted, really. Women are paid less than men for the same work. A recent European Parliament feature explained that women have had to work until 2 March 2012 to catch up to the amount earned by their male counterparts as of 31 December 2011. Sucks, doesn’t it?

Since it’s illegal to overtly offer more money to a male candidate than a female one, what’s actually happening to maintain this disparity? I suspect, although some pay-bartering is perhaps done through old networks or rapport, a sizeable part of the problem is that women don’t feel as comfortable asking for the salary they believe they are worth as men do. Or perhaps they’re not confident enough that they are worth that salary; they just feel a vague dissatisfaction with the status quo, but don’t want to rock the boat, for fear of judgements based on their sex.

I’ve been wondering recently whether there is in fact a critical period for the development of self-confidence, the results of which travel with children into adulthood, greatly affecting their self-perception. As someone who experienced bullying in quite a few arenas in childhood, it’s only been very recently that professional and personal discussions have thrown up exactly how these early experiences have knocked my willingness to take risks, value my own work or try new things. The last time I was invited to put forward a statement as to why I should be given a pay rise at work, I didn’t even bother. I felt too exposed, as if I were setting myself up for failure.

The intense scrutiny I felt I was under may have been, in part, my imagination. But when girls grow up being told that doctors are men and nurses are women, or that fluffy, bland programmes like the 1980s version of My Little Pony (the new series is going some way to making things right), or Care Bears are their programmes, and the exciting, proactive shows about winning battles and inventing things are only for the boys (leaving aside the problematic Smurfette principle), I wonder if the message of acceptance, meekness and passivity gets welded to gender identity in the long-term. Let the boys do all the challenging, dangerous tasks – we’ve got hair to plait! Of course it’s not the fault of cartoons, but a general gassing with perfume that has the potential to negatively affect womens’ self-esteem.

On top of this, there are those areas of industry that thrive on relentlessly undermining women’s confidence. They have a knack for it. The beauty industry is the obvious one – a facehugger targeting younger and younger females with a slow-acting poison – but there are many other businesses heavily invested in sucking women’s money, time, energy and security dry, hence their social and economic power. Today I walked past a sign in a salon for Hair Botox. Hair Botox – where does it stop?

Say a woman does make it onto the board of a company. She will almost always be in the minority, and so will stand out. She unwittingly becomes a representative for ‘women’. Any criticisms of her way of working are all too easily attributed to her sex. Is it surprising that few women consider this career step? The gut reaction to outspoken women and girls by many male commentators is to resort to gender-based insults and threats. This is particularly noticeable in internet commentary. Are online forums really such a world away from the macho environment of big business?

When I was small, I didn’t shy away from the dream of becoming a pilot or a mathematics professor or a free-runner or an MD at any point because I consciously filed them under ‘for boys’. They were simply never suggested to me. It never occurred to me that women could be doctors. Growing up, I recognised that, logically, of course they could, but it still felt unusual and somewhat of a novelty to see a female in such a role. I’m concerned that, just as with age we lose the ability to naturally absorb new languages, so too do we lose a degree of openness, and the ability not just to consider new possibilities, but to believe in them. If we want to normalise women making global business and political decisions, women creating and curating, broadening views everywhere, women conducting ground-breaking research and saving lives, we need to start spreading the message to young children that they can achieve anything. And don’t just tell the girls: tell everyone.

Happy International Women’s Day everybody!

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