Last October, Alice Paul Tapper, a Year 5 student in Washington, DC, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that had women of all ages nodding in solidarity. On a Year 4 trip, Tapper noticed that "all the boys stood in the front and raised their hands while most of the girls politely stayed in the back and were quiet". That made her upset.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Then, she hit the nail on the head: "I told my mom that I thought girls weren't raising their hands because they were afraid that the answer was going to be wrong and that they would be embarrassed. I also think they were being quiet because the boys already had the teacher's attention, and they worried they might not be able to get it."
New research shows that by the age of six, girls believe they are less likely than boys to be "really, really smart". Self-doubt can seep in through messages sent by parents, teachers, peers, cultural norms and the media, messages that say: Stay within the lines. Be respectful. Don't be too much. Do not fail.
Psychotherapist Katie Hurley sees young girls struggling to communicate their needs in the classroom. But as she writes in her forthcoming book No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls, when girls learn to use assertive voices, they not only tend to perform better in school, they're also more likely to stand up to negative peer pressure, verbalise their feelings to their friends and family, and solve daily life problems on their own.
"Girls need to learn (at an early age) that their voices matter," Hurley writes. "They need to learn how to assert their feelings, thoughts, needs and ideas. More importantly, they need to learn to state those things with conviction."
One thing parents can do is encourage girls to raise their hands more, even if they aren't certain their response will be "right". Nobody is telling them to be reckless about it (we all know what that looks like), but as Sheryl Sandberg would say, we can simply help them claim the "seat at the table" that they deserve.
Tapper, who is a Girl Scout, collaborated with her troop to come up with the new Raise Your Hand patch. To get it, a scout needs to pledge to raise her hand in class and recruit at least three other girls who promise to do the same. I love the idea of having a signed document and a constant visual reminder, but the responsibility of emboldening young girls doesn't need to fall on them alone.
Here's how adults can support them:
Reframe Bad Ideas as Essential Ideas
On Quartz at Work, Jennifer Riel writes about the importance of loving bad ideas because sharing those raw scraps of unedited thoughts can spark brilliant ideas.
"Every person is creative," Riel explains. "But many of us censor ourselves, holding off on sharing ideas until we are completely sure our idea is worthwhile. We want to be sure the idea clears the bar of worthiness for discussion. Who wants to be the person who suggests a totally unworkable, completely unrealistic bad idea in a meeting? All of us should, because it turns out that once a truly bad idea is on the table, it frees up the team to share their own ideas, even the ones that seem a little silly at first."
In a class of primary school kids, Riel had students try to come up with the worst idea for a birthday party. And the ideas flowed. An event in a sewer! A party with no cake! Parents and teachers can reframe failure as something we need more of. It's kind of like how we should write bad drafts.
At elite universities, faculty members have been noticing a problem. Many students, while impressive on paper, seem to be unable to cope with simple struggles - getting assigned to a dorm room they're not thrilled with, scoring less than an A-minus on a midterm, or not making the cut on school teams. The lack of resilience has become so apparent that Smith College now offers an entire course on how to fail. (One uncomfortable class project. Having your worst failures projected onto a large screen in the campus hub. Ouch.)
Teach Her to Practise Using Her Voice
Ban Bossy, the public service campaign to encourage leadership in girls, explains that girls learn early on that too much confidence can get them ostracised, and you hear it in their voices:
Many girls start sentences with apologies ("I'm not sure this is right, but…") or turn factual sentences into questions ("Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader?"). Some cock their heads, play with their hair, or cover their mouths while speaking, using phrases like "kind of" and "sort of" to weaken their convictions. These phrases can become habits and hinder a girl's ability to speak in a direct manner later on.
The campaign suggests that parents notice how they communicate in front of their girls, and acknowledge when they, too, use vague, indirect language. In her book, Hurley recommends giving girls opportunities to practise using their confident voices. One mission to try: Have your daughter ask a librarian where she might find some books on sharks. Practise it beforehand. "I have yet to meet a children's librarian who didn't jump right into action to help a child in need of a book," Hurley writes.
Change the System, Too
As Tapper pointed out in her New York Times op-ed, girls are often quiet because the boys already have their teacher's attention. Ban Bossy gives some tips for teachers on how make sure they aren't treating boys and girls differently.
- Spend a few days tracking the gender of the students they call on, making sure they call on as many girls as boys. Teachers should also, as the website urges, "Avoid excessive praise of girls who are 'well behaved'."
- Pause for a few moments after asking a question, giving all students more time to contribute.
- Try acknowledging all ideas in a neutral way ("Thank you for sharing") rather than blurting out, "Wow, that's an amazing idea!"
It takes intention and practise (and maybe some uncomfortable realisations), but acknowledging systemic issues is the first step to changing them.