The Confidence Code: Girls in STEM

A few weeks ago I read a moving article in The Atlantic called “The Confidence Gap.” The subtitle describes the article more eloquently than I could, so here it is: “Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men—and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence. Here’s why, and what to do about it.”

As I read it, I couldn’t help but notice that so much of it articulated exactly how I feel about myself. No one would ever guess that I am not confident because as a loud, outspoken, ADHD NYer, I come across as outgoing and self-assured. But the truth is I am plagued by self-doubt: I’ve frequently worried that I am an impostor, that as a classically trained musician who took not a single math class in college there is no way I am qualified to be a math teacher (or at least not to teach at a high level), that I don’t know enough math to come up with deep meaningful real-world connections, etc.

But this post isn’t about me; it’s about my students and what we as teachers should be doing with the knowledge of this confidence gap. Because how do girls feel about their own math abilities? From the article:

Dunning and Ehrlinger wanted to focus specifically on women and the impact of women’s preconceived notions about their own ability on their confidence. They gave male and female college students a quiz on scientific reasoning. Before the quiz the students rated their own scientific skills. “We wanted to see whether your general perception of ‘Am I good in science?’ shapes your impression of something that should be separate: ‘Did I get this question right?,'” Ehrlinger said. The women rated themselves more negative than the men did on scientific ability: on a scale of 1 to 10, the women gave themselves a 6.5 on average, and the men gave themselves a 7.6. When it came to assessing how well they answered the questions, the women thought they got 5.8 out of 10 questions right; men, 7.1. And how did they actually perform? Their average was almost the same — women got 7.5 out of 10 right and men 7.9. 


To show the real-world impact of self-perception, the students were then invited — having no knowledge of how they’d performed — to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men. “That was a proxy for whether women might seek out certain opportunities,” Ehrlinger told us. “Because they are less confident in general in their abilities, that led them not to want to pursue future opportunities.”


How sad is that? Women opt out. Even if it’s not happening in our classes yet, somewhere along the line 60% of them lose faith in their own abilities despite being as capable as men.  

They go on to talk about the fact that women underestimate themselves (or feel they can only apply for an opportunity if they meet 100% of the requirements) while men tend to overestimate themselves (and feel they can apply for an opportunity if they meet only 60% of the requirements). I decided to do a little research myself on my students. Before I gave them back their results, I asked them to write down what they thought they’d gotten. I did this with 20 students in my MYP 5 Mathematics Extended class (an advanced 10th grade math class in the IB system), 10 boys and 10 girls: 

Boys:  Overestimated: 3;  Got their score exactly correct: 4; Underestimated: 3

Girls:   Overestimated: 0;  Got their score exactly correct: 4 (though one cheated and wrote down 2 possible scores); Underestimated: 6

Of the girls that underestimated their scores, some grossly underestimated their scores, including one girl who got an 8 (the highest possible score), yet gave herself a merely OK 5. All of the girls that will be taking Mathematics Higher Level in the Diploma Program — that is to say, girls who think they want to pursue a math heavy career like engineering and so supposedly have confidence in their math abilities — underrated themselves. And I don’t think it’s modesty, like they were afraid to say they thought they’d done well. They legitimately thought they’d done worse than they had. Why? How can they prepare so hard and worry so much?

Back to the article, because there are many more important thoughts in it. I notice that I have a lot of girls who are absolute perfectionists. Their notebooks are impeccable; their working out looks like my working out. They are very very good at school. But they are so afraid to not be perfect. I’m sure you know where this is going — to Carol Dweck’s Mindset:

…Many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. “When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct,” Dweck writes in Mindset. Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. “Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,” she says, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.”

David Dunning, the Cornell psychologist, offered the following case in point: In Cornell’s math Ph.D. program, he’s observed, there’s a particular course during which the going inevitably gets tough. Dunning has noticed that male students typically recognize the hurdle for what it is, and respond to their lower grades by saying, “Wow, this is a tough class.” That’s what’s known as external attribution, and in a situation like this, it’s usually a healthy sign of resilience. Women tend to respond differently. When the course gets hard, Dunning told us, their reaction is more likely to be “You see, I knew I wasn’t good enough.” That’s internal attribution, and it can be debilitating.



What does this mean for us as teachers? How do we help our female students overcome this? How can we give girls (and boys) productive experiences with failure so they learn to use it as a growth opportunity rather than an affirmation that they aren’t good/smart enough? If it seems like it’s not happening in your classes, that’s an absolute illusion. A quick look at the gender makeup of engineers, computer programmers, etc. shows that there is a leak somewhere in the pipeline. The way my girls underestimate themselves shows me that it’s started even in high school, even in a top class. Is it happening in your class too?





About katenerdypoo

Middle Years and Upper Grades math teacher in the Netherlands teaching both within the Dutch national curriculum and the IB MYP and DP.
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