AASA 2023: How can districts disrupt the confidence gap for girls?

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SAN ANTONIO — The research is clear: A confidence gap prevents many women from ascending to higher levels of leadership, and that lack of confidence begins early.

In fact, between 5th and 12th grade, the percentage of girls who say they are confident plummets from 86% to 62% and never returns to pre-middle school levels. Between those same grade levels, the percentage of girls who want to change their appearance spikes from 20% to 60%.

These are among the findings of The Girls’ Index, a series of school-based surveys of 10,678 girls in grades 5-12 nationwide conducted by Ruling Our eXperiences, or ROX, and released in 2017. ROX is a nonprofit that partners with schools to help girls develop social, emotional and academic knowledge and skills in safe and empowering environments so they remain confident and assertive well into adulthood. The organization is in the process of compiling an updated Girls’ Index based on 2022 survey data.

During a Thursday panel at the National Conference on Education, held by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, ROX Founder and CEO Lisa Hinkelman presented some of her organization’s research, and two superintendents shared what’s working in their districts.

While a counselor education faculty member at Ohio State University, Hinkelman said she saw little being done to address the complex challenges girls face that lead to this crisis in confidence. 

“I saw girls go through adolescence and go from exuberant, outgoing, outspoken girls to girls that turned inward and became so consumed with what everyone else thought about them, what everybody else thought about how they looked,” Hinkelman said. “I watched super high-achieving girls hold themselves back because they didn’t think they were smart enough.”

To that end, ROX’s Girls’ Index surveys found 46% of high school girls don’t believe they’re smart enough for their dream career, double the share of 23% of elementary school girls who say that. Even more damning: About 33% of girls with GPAs above 4.0 say they’re not smart enough for the career they want.

This is rooted in the messages girls take in regarding what’s available to them, what they can or should be, what they should look and act like, the kinds of classes they can take and the kinds of careers available to them, Hinkelman said.

As much as we want to say girls can be anything they want, and you can do it and you can be it, it’s not necessarily what girls have been seeing or experiencing.

Lisa Hinkelman

Founder and CEO, Ruling Our eXperiences

In Fortune 500 companies, women represent about 6% to 8% of CEOs on any given day, and women still make up only about 27% of political leaders despite an influx of women in politics in recent years, Hinkelman said. Even in K-12 leadership, she added, only 15% of superintendents are women — while over 80% of teachers are women.

“As much as we want to say girls can be anything they want, and you can do it and you can be it, it’s not necessarily what girls have been seeing or experiencing,” Hinkelman said.

When asked what they need to be successful, the No. 1 response from girls was “confidence.” For instance, a third of Girls’ Index respondents reported they’re afraid to be a leader because they don’t want to be seen as “bossy.” And almost half refrain from disagreeing with others or saying what they really think because they want to be liked.

ROX’s findings also correlate with recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which found nearly 3 in 5 teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, 1 in 3 teenage girls seriously considered attempting suicide, and 1 in 5 saying they had experienced sexual violence in the past year.

Girls’ Index data shows time spent using technology impacts levels of sadness and depression in girls. Those spending eight or more daily hours using technology were five times more likely to say they are sad or depressed nearly every day than those using technology four or fewer hours a day.

Furthermore, effective friendships are critical for girls’ confidence, as girls who get along well with and trust other girls and have supportive friends report lower levels of sadness and depression. But 76% of girls said they believe most girls are in competition with one another.

“We have insanely competent girls, insanely competent women — they’re not seeing themselves the way we see them,” Hinkelman said. “We have to do things differently in the world of girls if we expect different outcomes.”

To change this, Hinkelman said, educators must be proactive, know the data, recognize the challenges, and implement supports.

Candace Singh, retired superintendent of California’s Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, introduced two districts taking just those steps.

This article originally appeared in www.k12dive.com

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