Studies dating as far back as 1978 have shown that women in college have lower self-esteems than men. Even in recent years, people have noted the confidence gap that exists between men and women. This gap likely contributes to the wage gap between the two, which may also exist largely due to gender roles. As the article I linked above says, part of what may contribute to why women get paid less than men is because they are often pushed to roles involving childcare and have to set up their careers around taking care of their children.
Another factor, however, is the confidence people need to negotiate pay raises and salaries. Too often, I’ve seen my female friends consistently downplay their accomplishments and work. They reduce the impact they’ve had on others, as well as their many achievements in life. On the other hand, I’ve often found men who are more than willing to take ownership of what they’ve accomplished in life. There’s this gender difference in claiming the right to share about your own achievements in everyday life. While humility is most certainly a virtue, if you constantly refrain from taking pride in your achievements, you may slowly eat away at your self-esteem. So just as much as your fellow colleagues, if you’ve worked and performed above expectations, you definitely deserve the raise you’re hesitant to ask for.
Part of this is because, as women, we’re raised to be perfect rather than brave. When boys charge headlong into things, they’re praised for doing so. When girls do the same, we teach them to “be careful.” We don’t encourage girls to take as many risks. We teach girls to be more reactive than proactive, to respond rather than initiate.
When girls encounter problems, they tend to think, “This is because there’s a problem with me.” When boys encounter problems, they tend to think, “This is because of someone else.” The rate at which men and women internalize or externalize the things that happen in life are oftentimes different — women internalize, men externalize.
Of course, these are, for the most part, generalizations. There are going to be men with low self-esteems and women with a healthy sense of confidence. There are going to be women who externalize and men who internalize. Generally, women seem to take a harder hit to their self-esteem during their time in college. I know this to be true especially for me.
Prior to Duke, I was involved in different extracurriculars: service clubs, cross country, Ultimate Frisbee, and chamber orchestra. I earned high grades and prided myself on my ability to study well and count myself among the top ranks in school. I took APs and did fairly well in most of them. I didn’t sleep much, but socially and academically, I was thriving. I’d finally settled into a pattern where I felt like I belonged. I had a fantastic group of friends who I still, for the most part, keep in touch with today, and I didn’t have much to complain about.
AP courses came nowhere close to preparing me for the rigor of Duke’s classes. Classes seemed almost designed to “weed out” students, to quash your love of learning. Introductory courses were unnecessarily hard. I remember taking Neuro101 and getting an F on the first test. In the past, I used to tell people I “bombed” tests when I got low C’s or D’s.. and this was the first time I’d actually failed a test.
Back then, I really prided myself on my academic success. It was an essential part of my identity. I would proudly call myself a nerd, if necessary. But as I tried harder and was inconsistently rewarded for my efforts, my self-esteem waned. I didn’t feel comfortable negotiating with professors for regrades. I was consumed by guilt when I had to ask for extensions or explain my circumstances.
All of these wore away at me to the point where I was oftentimes too ashamed of myself to show up to class.
I think many of my friends, like me, embodied a sort of impostor syndrome: we didn’t feel like we deserved to be at such an elite institution, with its wealth and wide selection of resources.
Is it a wonder, then, that in such an environment, trials can slowly erode at someone’s self-esteem?
Outside of college, though, there are most certainly other factors that can contribute to waning self-esteems. Take, for instance, the common “before” and “after” pictures of different skin care or weight loss regimens. These forms of advertising capitalize upon making you feel like a “before.” They chip away at your own sense of self-confidence, giving rise to doubts about whether you’re truly happy with the way you are now.
One of the songs that really hit me hard regarding these worries was Alessia Cara’s Scars to Your Beautiful.
She just wants to be beautiful
She goes unnoticed, she knows no limits
She craves attention, she praises an image
She prays to be sculpted by the sculptor
Oh, she don’t see the light that’s shining
Deeper than the eyes can find it
Maybe we have made her blind
So she tries to cover up her pain and cut her woes away
Cause covergirls don’t cry after their face is made
Women are slowly becoming more and more empowered through industries like music and acting and assuming roles of leadership. Even on Duke’s campus, a majority of the academic deans are women.
This isn’t to say that all of the underlying factors that start to undermine a women’s self-esteem are no longer there. There are definitely times when I’ve had men pay me unnecessary compliments for doing the same things they could: coming up with a good idea, offering suggestions for making things more efficient, and more. Sometimes, this kind of unwanted praise can seem (often unintentionally) condescending; it suggests that people don’t view the capabilities of women as being on the same level as men.
But ladies — we are capable. We are good enough. And we can do just as well as men, if not better. We don’t have to work twice as hard to prove we are just as good: we are good as we are.