Amid a global push for women’s rights, Sheetal Tahiramani, explores the role of confidence in the gender gap and asks how we can help our daughters to succeed.
With the #Metoo and ‘Time’s up’ movements in full force, award winning female led shows like Big, Little, Liars making headway, and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In becoming an everyday expression, the world is moving full steam ahead towards a gender neutral life. As more and more countries and organisations strive for female empowerment, the world has seen a positive shift to gender equality. For instance, the gender gap in education has been waning in the last 20 years with a higher rate of female enrolment in schools. While a Pew Research Centre analysis reveals that women make up at least 40 per cent of the workforce in more than 80 countries. Further studies demonstrate that when companies hire more women, they drive up their productivity and innovation. All the signs paint a glowing picture of the female population’s progress during the last few decades.
Yet, despite the significant progress and competency of women, we hear anecdotes of women hesitating before negotiating for a higher salary or promotion, not applying for that job, or feeling a lack of accomplishment in one of the hardest jobs in the world – raising children. We witness these stories among our friends, our colleagues, our mum friends, and even from ourselves. The feeling of ‘not being good enough’ is the relentless background buzz in a women’s life that does not seem to go away –similar to that feeling of utter exhaustion in early parenthood.
The fact that the female population is less confident than their male peers was a finding discussed by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code. Their research exposed that men tend to overestimate their abilities, whereas women downplay them even when possessing similar levels of achievement. It’s not about a difference in personality traits. On the contrary, it relates to how men and women truthfully perceive themselves, their talents, and their accomplishments. The major significance of this lies in the fact that success often correlates to confidence just as much as it does to competence.
Not only does a significant gender confidence gap exist, but it was found to be more pronounced in developed, prosperous, individualistic nations according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2015.
A gender confidence gap in a place like Hong Kong is surprising as the city is often regarded as one of the easiest places globally to establish a business and boasts an impressive 45 per cent of successful women-owned businesses. However, female-owned businesses tend to remain small in Hong Kong making up just 19 per cent of high-growth entrepreneurs. The fact that women lag in growth in Hong Kong exposes a possible symptom of a lowered confidence amongst other issues.
The question lingers: Why has a lowered self-esteem become prominent for women in wealthy, egalitarian countries where equal rights are evident?
How do genetics effect the gender confidence gap?
One theory suggests that genetics may play a role in the confidence gap. Across cultures, self-esteem seemed to follow a similar pattern in both genders taking a dip in the teenage years, thereafter ascending through adulthood. Men, however, had higher levels of confidence than females throughout adolescence and adulthood. The study theorises that hormonal fluctuations or universal gender roles may be a contributing factor to the gender confidence gap. As certain countries exposed a greater disparity between genders in adulthood, inevitably there are other elements to consider.
Is there an economic gap related to the gender confidence gap?
Another issue that may contribute to the confidence disparity is the wage gap across genders. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 index revealed the economic gender confidence gap is continuing to widen. In Hong Kong, the wage gap has grown from 19.1 per cent to 22.2 per cent in the last decade. This may put women at risk of suffering from a lowered self-esteem.
This is because when “women were earning less than their male counterparts with whom they were equal to in terms of education and work experience, they had a higher chance of being diagnosed with a depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder” accounts a study from the Columbia University in 2015. Social comparisons with the opposite gender are common in developed regions where equality is present. When the result of such comparisons is negative as in unequal pay, women are inevitably left with a sense of insecurity. This partly explains why the gender confidence gap is more pronounced in developed countries.
How does the socio-cultural environment effect the gender confidence gap?
Hong Kong’s conservative family culture creates an environment where gender stereotypes are rampant. The Women’s Foundation (TWF), a research based NGO that is dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong, conducted a 2012 study and found that parents and children view housework as primarily women’s work and many agree that women should put more emphasis on family than career. Lisa Moore, senior research & advocacy manager at TWF, adds that,
“Hong Kong culture has prescribed gender roles that are pervasive. [A woman] can have a career but there is still a lot of pressure on her to [fulfill multiple familial roles] which puts a lot of pressure on women midway through their career and results in many dropping out. This holds true for younger girls, as well. While in secondary school, they are taking in images from the media about women and leadership styles. And the message they’re getting is that if you’re aggressive, ambitious, and confident you are socially stigmatised.”
Not only do cultural attitudes contribute to the confidence gap, but environment and experiences in childhood also play a role. Sonia Samtani, founder of the All About You Wellness Centre, adds, “A woman’s self-esteem is often impacted by criticisms of their appearance and body image. The feeling of not being accepted often stems from the subconscious and childhood experiences. What is missing is self-acceptance.”
On the flipside, perhaps societies haven’t given women enough of a reason to feel self-assured. A 2006 Harvard study exposed that women are penalised more than men by men evaluators when attempting to negotiate for higher compensation. Men were also significantly more inclined to work with “nicer and less demanding women who accepted their compensation.” The social consequences may justify women’s lowered confidence in negotiations.
What does the gender confidence gap mean for our girls?
The way women are treated in the workplace is comparable to the way girls are treated in childhood. Often, we see young girls praised for qualities such as listening and doing things as told. In contrast, boys are encouraged to take risks, explore, and be messy. When girls get rewarded for their type of good behaviour, they become of afraid of taking risks which is a crucial element in building confidence.
Confidence levels for girls in Hong Kong are lower, in fact, when facing STEM subjects in secondary school according to a study done by The Women’s Foundation. “In Hong Kong, stereotypes are still prevalent particularly amongst teens. There are negative stereotypes surrounding ‘smart girls’. Unfortunately, having the confidence to raise your hand in order to challenge one of your male classmate’s views is not often viewed in a positive light,” reflects Moore.
It is not only young teens who limit themselves with stereotypes. Moore adds that, “There is an unconscious bias amongst teachers. Hard science subject teachers inadvertently have certain expectations of a boy’s performance versus a girl’s performance. They’re not quite equipped to be able to really cultivate and maintain girls’ interests in the subject.”
How can we create change
TWF is filling the social gaps in Hong Kong through programmes such as Girls Go Tech which empowers girls to create positive attitude shifts around technology. “We are building up girls’ confidence around these subjects through curriculums that are fun and interactive because it’s something that everyone can learn,” says Moore.
The All About You Wellness Centre is also creating change through healing methods such as regression therapy. “This is done through exercises similar to closed-eye meditation where one identifies triggers from the past then reprograms the mind through positive affirmations to her younger self,” says Samtani.
Through such programmes and healing exercises, we can cultivate change. Eliminating gender stereotypes from childhood will bring profound gains. Girls and boys alike will have the freedom and confidence to be the person they want to be. A society that embraces an increased confidence in girls and women will be reflected in increased productivity and well-being amongst individuals, societies, organisations, and nations. Fortunately, confidence can be acquired. As parents, teachers, and communities, we can work on raising self-esteem.
Tips on how to increase confidence in our children
- Help your children explore and pursue their talents. It develops their sense of identity which is important in building confidence.
- Encourage risk-taking. A desire to be perfect is more often seen in girls. Girls often internalise the need to get everything right in order to be accepted which can lead to low self-confidence.
- Allow your child to fail in order to learn resilience. The Child Mind Institute writes, “Trial and error is how kids learn and falling short on a goal helps kids find out its not fatal. It can spur kids to greater effort, which will serve them well as adults.”
- Praise effort, moderately and specifically, regardless of outcomes. It takes time to develop new skills. Let kids know you value the work they are doing irrespective of how trivial or grand the task at hand is.
- Encourage them to take on a sport. Research has shown links to playing sports in high school with a higher salary later in life. It also increased the likelihood of girls being employed in male-dominated industries.
- Foster a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. It creates a love of learning rather than a need for approval, teaches children that talents can be developed through hard work, and creates motivation – elements that lead to increased confidence.
Tips on raising confidence in younger children, aged 0-8 years
- Differentiate the child from their behaviour. The child needs to be reassured that she is accepted for whom she is and that only the behaviour demonstrated is not acceptable.
- Be mindful of your words and actions to and around your child. Whatever they are hearing especially between the ages of 0-8 years is getting received straight into their subconscious mind which leaves lasting impressions that can trigger them as adults.
- Form individual relationships with each child if you have more than one child.
- The time before bed, the “magic 30 minutes”, is the time children are most connected to their subconscious. The last thing they think about before going to bed is the first thing that gets updated in the subconscious mind. During this time, give them positive affirmations such as, “You are loved. You are accepted. You are safe.”
Tips for women to increase their confidence
- Practice making decisions – big & small. Women often ruminate and over-think situations more than men. “The ability to make decisions, in a timely fashion, is a critical expression of confidence,” according to The Confidence Code.
- “Look at the parts of yourself that did not feel good enough or acceptable from your younger self. Without placing blame on parents, teachers, or friends, speak to your “inner child” and give love and acceptance to those parts of you that you had rejected,” says Samtani.
- Try new things and get out of your comfort zone. Testing your abilities at new endeavours proves that you can rely on yourself.
- Create an action plan. Select an area in your life, professional or personal, that you would like to improve on. Make steps per a timeline, follow through on each, and celebrate each small success.
The Time’s Up movement was created in 2018 by women in entertainment for women across the world in response to the #MeToo movement which highlighted the wide scale problem of sexual harassment. They are addressing inequalities and injustices in the work place that have kept underrepresented groups from reaching their full potential. Their most recent call to action was witnessed at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards where countless celebrities arrived dressed in black in solidarity to the women who have faced harassment and injustice in silence. The movement states, “No more silence. No more waiting. No more tolerance for discrimination, harassment or abuse. Time’s Up.”
Sleep to Raise Confidence
Not only does a night of less sleep leave us with baggy eyes and a feeling of lethargy, but according to Kay and Shipman’s book, The Confidence Code, it also reduced one’s confidence. Many studies have proven that a lack of sleep is linked to higher anxiety and lowered esteem in adults as well as in children. One study which looked at 11-14 year olds showed that students who obtained less sleep than their peers reported lower self-esteem, grades, and depressive symptoms. “A calm brain is the ultimate confidence tool,” conveys the Confidence Code assessment.
This article appeared in Playtimes February Issue 2018 and was updated March 2021.
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