In the ’70s, a psychologist at Columbia University conducted a series of experiments with children which led to some unexpected results
The psychologist worked with fifth grade pupils (around 10 years old) to see how they dealt with new and complicated material.
Therefore he found that girls were more likely to abandon the difficult task, and they did so, on average, long before the boys. Interestingly, the girls with a higher IQ ‘threw in the towel’ first. They showed what the psychologist called a ‘learned helplessness’ model.
Boys with a higher IQ behaved differently. They took on the task as an intellectual challenge which energised them, and motivated them to put in more effort.
Why are girls more vulnerable to giving up and less secure than boys of the same age?
According to their school results, most of the girls exceeded the boys in all fields, including mathematics. Therefore, the difference in their behaviour had nothing to do with a lack of skill or knowledge, but rather with how they addressed the challenges.
While the boys identified the problems as “complicated”, they decided to work on them no matter what. The girls quickly lost confidence in their own abilities, thinking that the problems were unsolvable.
The girls’ lack of confidence in their abilities is carried into adulthood
According to statistics, the average man will show up at a job interview knowing that he possesses only 60% of the required capabilities for the position, while women will only apply for the job if they are confident that they have 100% of the capabilities required.
Where does this attitude to challenges come from?
The answer lies in education. It’s in how boys are taught to be strong and brave and face the challenges that are presented to them, while girls are taught that they are ‘perfect’, ‘delicate’ and weak and should act cautiously when faced with a difficult issue, in case they are hurt.
Brave boys, perfect girls …
It is difficult, even impossible, to erase centuries of tradition all at once. Although we have made progress in gender equality, in the collective unconscious and in the depths of our own minds, we still struggle with sexist ideas.
Parents continue to teach their sons not to cry, and their daughters to aim for perfection while behaving in moderation. Boys are taught that they are the knights that will eventually save the ‘helpless’ damsels in distress. Girls are taught that they don’t need to fight because they will always be saved!
Girls are taught to smile politely, get good grades and not to return home covered in mud. Parents are usually more permissive with boys, allowing them to play outdoors, get dirty and climb trees. In fact, many of these behaviours are rewarded, because they show how brave they are. In this way boys are encouraged to take risks.
Girls are taught to stay away from risks, to remain in the background, safe and within their comfort zones. Often they are praised for how well they behave, almost always because they remain silent, and for their sympathy.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that women suffer from more depression and anxiety than men.
Let’s teach our daughters to be brave
When we teach girls to be brave, to face challenges, and to form a strong support network around them, they will achieve their innate potential.
The best gift we can give to any child is to simply let them be. Don’t prescribe certain behaviours based on their gender. Allow your child to explore all of his or her passions, and encourage their curiosity.
Dweck, C. S. et. Al. (1978) Sex differences in learned helplessness: II. The contingencies of evaluative feedback in the classroom and IH. An experimental analysis. Developmental Psychology, 14: 268-276.
Dweck, C. S. & Bush, E. (1976) Sex differences in learned helplessness: I. Differential debilitation with peer and adult evaluators. Developmental Psychology; 12: 147-156.
Dweck, C. S. (1975) The role of expectations and attributions in the alleviation of learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 31: 674-685.