As a parent of two teen daughters, I try to stay in tune with how they feel about themselves. As a mother, I strive to show them what it means to be a confident, self-assured woman. As a feminist, I yearn for them to know their worth and to be unafraid to shine their unique light in the world.
Some days, I feel like we’re hitting all those marks. And other days, I worry that no matter what I do, society’s subtle-but-pervasive messages about girls and women are drowning out my influence.
My daughter is set to graduate from community college with her AA degree in the spring—at 17 years old. She gets good grades. She’s on the Dean’s List. By all academic measures, she’s a bright, intelligent girl.
And yet, she still doubts herself. When she’s feeling frustrated, she’ll ask me if I think she’s smart. I’m always dumbfounded by this question. How can a girl who’s halfway through a college degree at 17 possibly wonder if she’s smart?
But apparently, she’s not alone. A survey of almost 11,000 American girls between ages 10 and 18 found that many girls lose confidence as they grow older. In fact, a third of girls who have a 4.0 grade point average don’t view themselves as smart enough for their dream jobs.
Why would straight-A students not feel smart enough for their dream jobs? Is it that girls with excellent grades simply have super high standards? Or are many of those dream jobs still so dominated by men that girls doubt if they’ll be able to break in?
I wonder about this phenomenon with my 17-year-old daughter. The two career fields she’s most interested in pursuing—architecture and film music composition—are still highly male-dominated fields. Despite her good grades and impressive musical ability, does the dearth of female role models in these careers make her doubt herself? Does she feel like she’s going to have to be not just smart, but super-extra-highly exceptional in order to make it in one of those fields as a woman?
Seeing this scenario play out with my own daughter makes me wonder if this might be the case for other girls whose dream jobs fall into categories where women are underrepresented. Computer programming, engineering, surgery, finance, politics, and more are still largely male-dominated fields. If girls are thinking about careers in those fields, do they get the feeling they’re going to have to be above and beyond qualified to land the jobs they want? It’s possible.
The survey also pointed to issues beyond girls’ perceptions of their own intelligence, though. Among girls with the highest GPA, 62 percent said they don’t share their opinion or disagree with others because they want to be liked. A majority also said they like to be in charge, but many shy away from leadership roles because they don’t want to be thought of as bossy.
I’m trying desperately to think of a single time I’ve heard a tween or teen male worry about being seen as “too bossy” if they take a leadership position. Granted, not everything comes down to gender, but I have a hunch that very few males worry about being smart enough to make it in a female-dominated career field as well.
As parents, there’s a lot we can do to help our daughters see themselves as strong, smart, and capable. But we have to remember—even though we’ve come a long way, we’re still fighting an uphill battle with our daughters. Some of them will be pursuing careers that will require them to be trailblazing women, and not every girl wants that pressure. Even if they have the intelligence and ability, they may not see themselves as being good enough to compete in a male-dominated field. Whether that’s because they don’t see enough women in their dream jobs, because they think that the qualities that would make them successful also make them “unlikable,” or because they simply have unrealistic standards, something needs to change in the messages girls are getting.
When a third of straight-A, female students think they aren’t smart enough for their dream jobs, we have some work to do—not just moms of girls, but all of us.