Closing the “Confidence Gap” for Girls


It is a well known, (if often unacknowledged) fact that in our society there still exists a significant gap in the number of women compared to men in the fields of science and math, and that women still lag in leadership positions, holding only 5% of top corporate positions and a minority of positions in elected legislatures (just 16% in the USA).

 What is to account for this difference? Not ability. A recent study that analyzed math scores from more than half a million fourth- and eighth-graders from 86 countries found  essentially no gender differences between girls and boys in math performance, and that that the more equal the societies were regarding  gender, the better everyonedid in math. And a new study in the journal Science concluded, “Gender differences in choosing to enter competitions are one source of unequal labor market outcomes concerning wages and promotions.” Other studies have supported this conclusion, finding that when women and men see a job posting where they do not have every qualification, women are much less likely to apply for those positions than men are. And in the field of politics, studies have shown that women are more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.

The researchers of the Science study conducted an experiment which involved three methods that provided an initial advantage to women in a math competition. The study that was conducted indicated that if a system of gender-based affirmative action was put into place initially, women felt more confident about their abilities and were not only more likely to enter the contest, but more likely to succeed as well.

So what is happening here, and what do we do about it? According to Anita Gurian, a clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, for girls, “Starting in the pre-teen years, there is a shift in focus; the body becomes an all consuming passion and barometer of worth.” Girls get the message that being smart is unattractive, and they start to hide their accomplishments & their ideas. Girls are also exposed early on to the message that certain fields are difficult for them, and these expectations of failure eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This “confidence gap” doesn’t just impact girls in their careers. It has an impact on every aspect of their lives. A study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of teens who had unintended pregnancies found that 25% did not use contraception because their partners did not want them to. It is for this reason that it is so important girls learn early on to be assertive, to stand up for themselves, and to feel comfortable saying “no.”

In order to succeed in fields where women are traditionally underrepresented, encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and participation in entrepreneurship & civic engagement is incredibly important. But on a more basic level, it is clear we need to encourage girls to be confident, assertive, and proactive in all aspects of their lives.  That is why GENaustin, through our array of programming, seeks to empower all girls to recognize and celebrate their abilities, and to never feel intimidated to pursue their goals. Ultimately it is today’s empowered girls that will become the first women to jump the gender gap.


Vanessa Wright