25 septiembre 2014

Is there a gender confidence gap?

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A recently published book claims that there is one. Compared with men, it alleges, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they will do worse on tests, undervalue their scientific skills, and generally underestimate their abilities, therefore opting out of many educational, employment and other life opportunities before even trying.

This disparity in confidence apparently results from factors ranging from biological dispositions to the way children are socialized: girls are expected to be modest and quiet; boys are encouraged to take risks, be strong and control their emotions. To compound these, institutions, markets and life experiences play a key role in enabling or inhibiting women’s ability to take control of their own lives both within and outside the home.

So the confidence gap may be more a socio-economic and cultural issue than a women’s issue. As a critique to this concept alleges, gender based discrimination and sexism are naturalized and shape women’s behavior: women and girls aren’t assertive because when they act too confident they get punished, at home, at school, in the workplace, in politics (as the documentary Miss Representation reflects).

Therefore there seems to be a dynamic interplay between internal predisposition and skills, contextual factors and life experiences that can enhance or undermine self-confidence. Even if the confidence gap premise and the solutions proposed by its authors (i.e. women should lean in, and not ruminate so much instead of taking action) clearly resonate with privileged women and not quite with the majority, there is an essentially valid point to consider.

Gender inequality affects girls’ and women’s confidence in their ability to pursue life plans that might not conform to the socially expected roles assigned to them, since very early in life. Consequently, programs and policies that aim to redress existing imbalances by increasing women’s opportunities need to include effective interventions to ensure that they are aware of their rights, can aspire to a life that is meaningful to them (be it becoming an astronomer or a stay home mom), believe in their ability to achieve it and encourage them to pursue it..

There is compelling evidence correlating personality traits such as motivation, self-confidence, and grit to the likelihood of achieving successful outcomes in life such as educational attainment, labor market performance and health. Heckman argues that certain personality traits are essential for personal and professional success. Confidence seems to be at least partly responsible for turning thoughts into judgments of what we are capable of and thus can help transform aspirations and goals into action to achieve them.

So even if women and girl’s self-confidence might only be one of many factors affecting their chances of having the same development opportunities as men and boys, what can programs and policies seeking to promote gender equality do to address this?

Effective interventions in the areas of early child and youth development, parenting, employability, sexual and reproductive health, and education programs should acknowledge that girls and boys have different patterns of learning, taking risks, manifesting leadership and even self-confidence. These can include components to promote a critical reflection on how gender norms and expected roles shape and limit girls and women’s ability to make meaningful life choices and to transform them into desired outcomes.

Several interventions that seek to build women’s and girls’ self-confidence in combination with economic or educational opportunities, have found that this also contributes to positive outcomes such as increased employability, reduced school drop-outs, postponing child-birth and healthier sexual behavior, positive parent-child relationship, and reduced partner violence. Other promising gender sensitive educational approaches seek to ensure equal participation of girls and boys in expressing their opinions and taking responsibilities in the classroom, encourage girls to hone their skills in areas beyond their comfort zone and to focus on their aspirations.

What experiences can you share of effective interventions, which have designed educational or life- skills programs considering the different ways in which men and women, girls and boys learn and act to overcome the constraints they face?

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