Helping women do worse in school


Sarah is now earning a Master’s while I work. Soon Sarah will outrank me, but while she has gone farther than me in school and outscored me in a class, there is no doubt that I remain more confident in my ideas. This surprised both of us. As it turns out, this confidence gap is widespread. There’s a plethora of studies, and a whole bunch more articles discussing the issues—all explaining the existence and implications of the confidence gap between men and women.

Explanations are diverse, and quality essays consider several factors including everything from biology (mainly hormones), to patterns of feedback (an idea I find particularly intriguing), and some even suggest the problem is that women are less likely to play sports. Whatever the reason, I am currently wondering why woman’s increasing success at school doesn’t seem to translate into increased confidence. In fact some studies suggest that it hurts.

Whether the confidence gap originates in the school system or not, one thing is for certain, the system has not managed to remedy the situation. Perhaps we’re a little too glad that women are doing so well in school, because to do well in school often only means learning to fit into a bureaucracy and appease authority figures. The system is too contained and encourages a false sense of control which can fertilize perfectionism.  

What if instead of helping men do better in schools, we take on the bigger problem—helping women do worse. I say this half humorously. But perhaps more opportunities for low stakes failures so students can fail more often and more safely would actually help. I’m just imagining what a system that reinforced real authentic confidence would look like.

The kind of confidence I mean is not normally found in the people who try to seem ultra-sure of themselves, or who think they’re the coolest thing since Mick Jagger, or who can outshout the rest of the room, or who aren’t scared to throw elbows—these are all things that will make you look quite the opposite of confident. People who try too hard and care too much always seem to be overcompensating.

The attribute I mean begins with a gentle self-acceptance. This confidence is the core of charisma and we find it in all our most admirable literary characters: Dorothea Brooke, Yoda, Atticus Finch, Hester Prynne, Gandalf, and the list goes on. Imagine Dumbledore—an imperfect old man, soft spoken, wise, at peace with himself and the world. He is the image of confidence, and education for that matter.

Here’s what I know: confidence is irresistibly attractive in both men and women. Here’s what I don’t know: how to build a system that encourages it?

One thought on “Helping women do worse in school

  1. I think this is a great question–how to build a system that encourages confidence. I’m not sure the gender gap is a necessary consideration, though. The point is not to make women as confident as men (as a class), but to make all people as confident as they can be (as individuals).

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