Women's identities have gotten a bad rap. We are told that women think badly of themselves, and they have no self-confidence. If you Google "women and self-esteem" you'll get over 7 million hits, most of them websites on the problems of women's self-esteem or how to boost women's self-esteem. Women's identities, we are told, are fragile and conflicted: at work they feel like frauds and at home they feel worthless. Women are ambivalent over whether they want to be feminine or masculine, and ping-pong back and forth between gender roles. One day they are all gentleness, caring, and frills and the next day they are all assertiveness, self-promotion, and pantsuits.
These weak, split identities supposedly begin in adolescence. A 1991 study by the American Association of University women announced that girls "lose their self-esteem on the way to adolescence." In 2002, the Girl Scout Council launched a program to "address the critical nationwide problem of low self-esteem among adolescent and pre-adolescent girls." Popular books claimed that before adolescence, girls have a range of interests and strong opinions about the world. As they enter dating age, however, girls lose their "voice" as they confront demands to become subservient and silent in order to be attractive to males. They stifle their opinions, personalities and interests and instead pretend to be what they think boys want them to be.
The problem is that none of this is true for the majority of women, and hardly at all for girls of the 21st century. The study by the American Association of University Women was refuted by subsequent studies using large samples and better measures of self-esteem. One study of over 100,000 individuals found that girls' self-esteem does not fall precipitously at adolescence. And although girls are more anxious about their appearance than boys, there are no differences between girls' and boys' self-esteem in academic matters, and girls have higher self-esteem than boys in moral-ethical matters, or how they feel about their behavior.
Claims that girls lose their voice in adolescence were based on case studies of girls seeking psychotherapy for mental health problems, and interviews with girls but not with boys. Although the results of these investigations surely apply to some girls, they cannot be generalized to most girls. Psychologist Susan Harter of the University of Denver has done rigorous empirical work on "voice" in adolescent girls and boys. She and her colleagues asked several hundred girls and boys, ages 12 to 17, to complete a questionnaire measuring voice. This questionnaire tapped the extent to which teenagers were able to "express their opinions," "share what they are really thinking," "let others know what is important to them," and "say what is on their mind" with peers, parents, and teachers. There were no significant differences in girls' and boys' scores on this measure of voice, and increases instead of declines in girls' (and boys') levels of voice with age. For both girls and boys, those who felt supported by parents, teachers, and friends in expressing their points of view felt they had a stronger voice.
Well, you might say, things have changed, and although 21st-century girls now have a strong and positive identity, adult women still struggle with low self-esteem, little sense of mastery or agency in the world, and ambivalence over whether they should be feminine or masculine. But no, the evidence is not there for these claims either.
The majority of adult women these days define themselves not primarily as feminine or masculine, but as a comfortable mix of the two. Even reviews of studies done before 1970, as well as reviews of more recent studies, failed to find substantive differences between women and men in self-esteem or a sense of control or mastery. Yes, you can find individual studies that show that men have higher self-esteem and mastery than women, but when you average across dozens and dozens of studies, at most you find a miniscule difference between men and women that depends on which measure of self-esteem or mastery you use. The phrase "much ado about nothing" comes to mind.
The mischaracterization of women's and girls' identities as weak and conflicted has many potential negative consequences. As psychologist Jean Twenge concludes, the widespread belief that girls and women have low self-esteem and flawed self-concepts can set up negative expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies. When things go wrong—they aren't doing well at school or work, their relationships are going sour, or they are distressed and don't know why—they may conclude that it's because there is something wrong with their self-concept and personality rather than that there is something wrong in their environment. In addition, the perception that women have weak identities and low self-esteem also can discourage the public from believing that women are fit for positions of leadership and power.
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American Association of University Women (1991). Shorthchanging girls, shortchanging America. Washington DC: Author.
C. Gilligan. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
M. Pipher. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Putnam.
J. M. Twenge & W. K. Campbell. (2001). Age and birth cohort differences in self-esteem: A cross-temporal meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 321-244.
S. Harter, P. L. Waters, & N. R. Whitesell (1997). Lack of voice as a manifestation of false self behavior among adolescents: The school setting as a stage upon which the drama of authenticity is enacted. Educational Psychologist, 32, 135-173.
S. Harter, P. L. Waters N. R. Witesell, & D. Kastelic. (1998). Level of voice among female and male high school students: Relational context, support, and gender orientiation. Developmental Psychology, 54, 892-901.
J. M. Twenge. (1997). Changes in masculine and feminine traits over time: A meta-analysis. Sex Roles, 36, 305-325.