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Why do bright women struggle with confidence while many men have no such problem?

Girls are brighter in fifth grade -- and then what happens?

… the toughest hurdle for young women “lies within”

For too many years in the 19th and 20th centuries, young women were told that they could not succeed in a man’s world. That changed in the last two decades of the 20th Century as women made great strides in so many fields.

However, to continue to make those strides, a Columbia University administrator argued a decade ago, women need to overcome the stigmas the they believe exist for themselves, something that men do not have to confront.

The reasons are complicated.

The greatest impediment?

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is currently the associate director of the Motivation Science Center and of Columbia Business School. She has accomplished a great deal in her life, and in 2011, she wrote an analysis of what she and other perceive as the greatest impediment to women accomplishing as much as men.

And some of this analysis starts in the fifth grade,

Successful women know only too well that in any male-dominated profession, we often find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage. We are routinely underestimated, underutilized, and even underpaid. Studies show that women need to perform at extraordinarily high levels, just to appear moderately competent compared to our male coworkers.

But in my experience, smart and talented women rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they'll have to overcome to be successful lies within. We judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than men do. Understanding why we do it is the first step to righting a terrible wrong. And to do that, we need to take a step back in time.

Chances are good that if you are a successful professional today, you were a pretty bright fifth grade girl. My graduate advisor, psychologist Carol Dweck (author of Mindset) conducted a series of studies in the 1980s, looking at how bright girls and boys in the fifth grade handled new, difficult and confusing material.

She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up--and the higher the girls' IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, “The Trouble with Bright Girls,” Psychology Today, January 27, 2011

Some of this is still occurring in the 21st Century

Why is this the case? Well, I thought about all of the bright young women who were in my grade school class in fifth grade. Many were bright, and quite a few became registered nurses. However, did some of them fail to pursue a degree or settle for something less than what they were qualified for base on their intelligence because after fifth grade, they fell into the same trap as the one envisioned by Dr. Halvorson?

Why does this happen? What makes smart girls more vulnerable, and less confident, when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the fifth grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty--what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn.

Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result.

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their "goodness." When we do well in school, we are told that we are "so smart," "so clever, " or " such a good student." This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Psychology Today, January 27, 2011

So, while they started this study in the 1980s, it is still taking place today.

Do girls carry these ideas with them?

What is the difference between girls and boys? Halvorson believes that girls continue to carry with them the negative self-image after fifth grade, which may be disappointing if true today,

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., "If you would just pay attention you could learn this," "If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.") The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren't "good" and "smart", and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves--women who will prematurely conclude that they don't have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Psychology Today, January 27, 2011

Innate and unchangeable? Does this. mean that the way that teachers and parents talk to young women leave such an impression that they can never overcome it?

No, but it appears that many still lack the confidence that boys do, and that it is the self=image that needs to be changed.

An interesting analysis.

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