Alexandra Burke of X Factor and Strictly fame has been in the press a lot recently. Not for a new musical or performance achievement of hers, but because she has dared to raise the issue of attitudes towards confident women.
Referring predominantly to the fact that she didn’t win Strictly when she was clearly the better dancer, she believes that this was due in most part to the reality that the public just don’t like a confident woman and will instead always favour the underdog. This should raise questions for all of us who are responsible for educating girls and raising them to become women equipped and confident to step out into the future – and it is about us and them helping to create a future where that confidence is embraced.
All too often girls and women still see themselves as inferior in some way to their male counterparts – this has to stop. BBC World News presenter Katty Kay touched on the subject of the "confidence gap" while researching for the BBC 100 Women season. She reported that findings from the Columbia Business School, New York, showed that men tend to overestimate their abilities by something like 30 per cent, while women, on the other hand, tend to underestimate their abilities. Women often believe that any of their successes are down to good fortune, good looks or even just being in the right place at the right time, when, in reality, there is no concrete evidence that women are less competent than their male counterparts.
Summarising her view on the subject, she suggests that “the confidence gap is due to a noxious stew of perfectionism, risk-aversion, fear of failure and overthinking”. The existing problem is that the more women believe this about themselves, the easier it is for society to believe the same. A confident woman is no threat, or at least she shouldn’t be, and her confidence should not be confused with arrogance. As Alexandra Burke commented: “It’s a shame that some people mistook that determination and that will to want to do well, which everyone should have in life by the way, for arrogance or anything other than what it was.”
Women 'penalised for their assertiveness'
It seems we are currently stuck in a world where confident women are almost penalised for their assertiveness, and all too often girls at school can fall behind at an early stage when trapped in "the confidence gap".
So what role can we, as educators, play? The teacher’s position is key in this. Teachers need to be aware of managing their classrooms so that boys in mixed schools don’t take over, and girls are able to build their confidence, put their hands up and be heard. Girls need encouragement to have more faith in themselves, and they need positive role models in their teachers and their peers, as well as in society, and an all-girls education can and does provide this. Girls need to believe in themselves and have faith in everything they do, including any university or job applications that they put forward. They often instantly dismiss something as being out of their reach because they feel that they don’t tick every one of the boxes.
Girls should be encouraged to step out their comfort zones to try new things, persevering but also acknowledging that there may be setbacks, from which they have to bounce back and move on – and they do. As Katty Kay explained, closing the confidence gap involves “letting upsets, criticisms and mistakes go and not clinging to them like a dog with a bone”.
Increasingly we are seeing strong, confident women in roles previously only enjoyed by men, and if this makes people uncomfortable then it really needs to be addressed. We do have an ongoing fight on our hands, but it’s a fight for equality, not for supremacy.
Our aim at Nottingham Girls’ High School is for girls to enjoy what they do, be happy and successful, and, yes, confident. We’re not trying to turn them against men (which incidentally is another common misconception) but to teach them that they have as much right to the same opportunities as men do, and to feel proud of the assertiveness to which they are entitled to, and have worked so hard for.
Julie Keller is the head at Nottingham Girls’ High School, GDST