How we’re holding back our young girls’ education

Kinderling News & Features

We’ve seen a big push for girls to study more Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects at school in recent years. But many girls still don't choose them.

Andrew Martin , Scientia Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales, says 'imposter syndrome' is to blame.

In new research, Andrew has revealed a link between choosing STEM subjects and anxiety; and the combination is preventing girls getting good results at school.   

Andrew says that even if a girl is interested in STEM subjects, the fact that it's not  gender stereotypical to study them, means they often don’t apply themselves.

In addition to this, schools and parents often, unintentionally, reinforce these beliefs. 

We asked Andrew where imposter syndrome is stemming from, and how we can help change the pattern.

Girls suffer from imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome most commonly understood in the context of self-doubt many women, especially those in high-ranking positions, experience in the workplace. 

However Andrew's research has found girls in early primary school are being affected in similar ways. 

There are several issues that contribute to imposter syndrome

Andrew says that the issues underpinning imposter syndrome are high anxiety, a fear of failure and loss of control when you don’t feel on top of things.

“These factors start playing out early and over time they can be amplified because our society isn't very good at allowing girls to take credit for their successes.”

In fact, his research suggests that this appears from as early as the first year of school:

“Academic anxiety will start cutting in even in primary school, and the lower years of that - even in kindergarten/prep/reception, for example - where we find girls are a little more anxious than the boys.”

Society plays a huge part

Nature versus nurture has a lot to answer for when it comes to imposter syndrome. While all parents are doing their very best to keep their little girls self-assured, sometimes we unintentionally place expectations on them.

Andrew explains that girls are generally more organised, have the capacity to plan, a better memory and their impulse control is more advanced than; and with good executive functioning, you’re able to apply yourself better in school.

The largely unavoidable impact of the broader environment, can also contribute to girl's imposter syndrome issues.

“It is pretty impossible to be able to fully disentangle yourself from the society in which you operate. Having said that, [when we are] being mindful of the dynamics that go on in society, we are in a much better position to be able to challenge some of those stereotypes that can be actually very unhelpful for both boys and girls.”

As parents, we can help girls maintain their confidence

“Anxiety is a really interesting beast,” Andrew says. A lot of girls will channel their anxiety by trying harder, so they become very diligent, well organised and worked until midnight on assignments."

Obviously, these are good habits to encourage, and we want to retain the diligence, effort and application. But at the same time, we want to change the reasons why they're doing that.

“For many girls the reason is fear of failure based and anxiety based … because they tend to internalise failure, disproportionately,” Andrew says. “They tend to sort of really blame themselves when something goes wrong, beat themselves up a bit longer than a boy will for making a mistake.”

It’s important for us to help girls see mistakes as an opportunity for growth.

“Where are the real growth opportunities? It's the growth opportunity where there's the gap between where you are now and where you can be,” Andrew explains.

"Mistakes and setbacks are actually growth opportunities, so instead of being hard on themselves, encourage your daughter to see that this is a growth opportunity to further success."