I heard on NPR the other day that a woman’s self-esteem peaks at age 9. Nine. For most people, that’s fourth grade. I was equal parts shocked and not surprised to hear this: shocked because I personally feel more confident now than I did 13 years ago, but also not surprised given the way a lot of girls come of age.
Girls at age 9 are not afraid. They’re not afraid to be loud, to get dirty, to take up space, to speak out of turn, to tell on a classmate that has been mean to them. But something changes as girls grow up. It definitely has to do with the way certain traits are associated with masculinity—bravery, toughness, and loudness—and others with femininity, like being quiet and agreeable. Internalizing those stereotypes as a young adult has, I think, made many women more risk-averse than men.
Of course, I am myself aware of the perils of stereotyping. “Women” are not a monolith that can be characterized by a few adjectives (and the same goes for men). But a disparity of success and achievement among the sexes is undeniable. For instance, only 7% of partners at top 100 venture capital firms are women, a figure made more disappointing only by the fact that it is decreasing. There are many reasons for gender gaps in representation, but I think one change that would make a difference is building confidence in girls and young women.
I am not talking about the picture-book version of confidence, which looks like Elle Woods in a pink suit or even Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Lean In. Start small. I spent the first few years of college being afraid: afraid to say the wrong thing, to look stupid, to try at something and fail. And I regret the time I wasted not using my voice or taking risks.
To me, having high self-esteem means applying for a job that I might not be totally qualified for, raising my hand in class when I’m not exactly sure what the answer is, or asking the person next to me if they want to be my partner for a group project. To you, it might mean negotiating your salary, learning to say “no,” or pursuing a passion project. But it starts with a choice to recognize your own abilities and embrace risk.
The meek may inherit the earth, but women cannot wait for that.