Having now written several articles on educating girls, I continue to be amazed at how frequently apparent female ‘vulnerabilities’ are reported in the media. Indeed, the media focus on the seeming lack of female confidence was highlighted yet again in a recent article about how even women like Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, continue to suffer from nerves and a lack of complete self-confidence. Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, in their book ‘The Confidence Code’, comment that women “are not getting as far, in their professional lives and their personal lives, than they might do if they were not holding themselves back with all this worrying and self-criticism and running around in circles with negative thoughts. We have to stop being our own worst critics.” Is it now time to focus, not on this apparent ‘failure’ inherent in all women, but rather on how to improve the picture for women of the future?
I believe that we need to teach the importance of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. Despite our apparent natural talents and tendencies, through hard work, effort, resilience and the willingness to take risks, any child can achieve great things. If we focus too much on the obstacles to success rather than on the characteristics that can foster achievement, then the girls we teach will continue to fulfil the stereotypical expectations that society can often impose on them and that girls can often impose on themselves. As teachers, we should emphasise those great figures who, despite an unpromising start, or an apparent lack of natural talent, continue to persevere and – ultimately – succeed. When she received an honorary doctorate at Brunel University, for example, Kelly Holmes told students that she succeeded because, despite getting “knocked down seven times”, she continued to get up “because on the eighth time, [you] never know what will happen”.
In educating girls, then, how can we encourage a growth mindset which stimulates them to persevere, overcome failure and walk with confidence into those roles which still seem to be dominated by their male counterparts? As teachers, we need to avoid presenting attainment as the end of all endeavours. This is difficult in an educational world focused on league tables and results, but concentrating on the importance of effort is the key to encouraging the perspective that there is no fixed limit to what a child can achieve. Effort should be rewarded and opportunities provided for students, through a wide range of teaching and learning strategies, to demonstrate their efforts, passion and love of learning. We can all recognize those students who, when things become difficult, lose interest and confidence. This feature of the fixed mindset needs to be challenged at all levels; only if the effort increases when work becomes tough, can girls possibly achieve the potential of which they are capable.
We also need to alter mindsets by teaching that confidence is not a negative characteristic. Rather than confidence reflecting arrogance or ‘bossiness’ in women, confidence should be presented as a characteristic which is important for future success. Giving our female students the opportunity to engage in leadership roles is vital, both inside and outside the classroom. Furthermore, such opportunities should be not be offered as a ‘one-off’. Aristotle’s “excellence … is not an act, but a habit” is an important lesson to teach our students. And for those who find taking on such roles difficult, encouraging students to be ‘risk-takers’ and incorporating this characteristic as a virtue to be encouraged at all levels of the school, will be important.
Teaching girls is a privilege but, in educational terms, they are different to boys. We have a duty to use those strategies when teaching them which will enable them to fulfil their potential so that they can, justifiably, match all of their future male counterparts.