Helping Girls Develop their Identities
Bridges and roadblocks that afford or constrain opportunities
Posted Jul 18, 2019
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her TED talk, "The danger of a single story," adolescents actively construct identity stories that knit together diverse group memberships, such as daughter, sister, friend, student, gender, race, ethnicity, social class, sexuality, religion, and community, with the master narratives that embody their cultural histories, values, practices, and goals. Local and international heroines have become role models for girls and women’s identity quests.
Malala Yousafzai, perhaps the most famous, survived being shot by the Taliban for speaking out for girls and women’s right to an education; she is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Payal Jangid, who escaped child slavery in her village in India, now leads her village’s Child Parliament. Greta Thunberg and Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, now 16, are leaders in efforts against climate change that have sparked high school student protests and walkouts world-wide. At 11, Marley Dias, frustrated by the absence of Black characters in children’s books, organized the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign to donate books with Black characters to other Black girls that went viral. Perhaps the youngest, five-year-old Sophie Cruz ran through his security detail to hand Pope Francis a letter she wrote in Spanish asking him to intercede with the U.S. government against deporting undocumented immigrants.
Despite these amazing role models, today’s adolescents face many barriers in their identity journeys. Roadblocks to identity development, such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, conduct disorders, and delinquency are on the rise high as adolescents struggle to feel like they belong with peers and at school and their communities, withstand their families’ pressures to participate in an oft-overwhelming number of activities they view as necessary for college admission, and cope with aggression in their schools and communities. These challenges can lead to avoidance, disconnection, and hopelessness—identity diffusion or confusion—(cf. Erikson, 1968) wherein adolescents opt out of identity development and focus, instead, on just trying to make it through the day.
In his widely-read book, Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do? Claude M. Steele (2010) summarizes an award-winning program of research that has helped scholars as well as universities, professors, schools, teachers, principals, and government officials understand how visible and invisible identity contingencies afford or constrain youth’s educational and life opportunities. Steele borrows from Behaviorism to create the concept of identity contingency: “Contingencies are contingencies that you have to deal with in a setting in order to function on in it. Identity contingencies are conditions that are special to you because you have a given social identity, things like the availability of a bank loan to Broyard only when he was white, the lowered expectations for mental alertness one might experience as an older person, or the social avoidance a southerner might experience as his accent is heard at a New England cocktail party.” (p.68)
Like Broyard, although I am Latina, I can “pass” as white, but my daughters, both dark skinned, cannot. The minute they enter a social setting, the color of their skin creates expectations and evaluations, such as my Black daughter’s effervescent, extraverted personality being interpreted as disruptive and unmotivated in the classroom and my Latina daughter being asked to show her citizenship papers while walking downtown with her white best friend.
Steele (2010) lists several identities that constrain or open opportunities for adolescents’ development: age, education, politics, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, social class, religion, student, etc. As captured by Erving Goffman’s (1963) concept of spoiled identity, all of these identities can result in identity threats, prejudice, and discrimination. The effects of stereotypes can be as subtle as those of seemingly small changes in the wording of instructions for a set of math problems, such as “This difficult math test measures your ability” vs. “This is a difficult math test.” The first set of instructions results in girls and women performing more poorly than the second test instruction because they experience stereotype threat. Because boys/men are stereotyped as being better at math than girls/women, the first set of instructions activates this stereotype, threatens their identities, and impacts their performance negatively (Steele, 2010).
Identity threats or spoiled identities can be activated even when we have yet to experience discrimination because we worry about how we will be treated if a particular ‘Invisible’ identity is discovered. For example, in his book, Steele includes a letter from a student suffering from bipolar disorder in which she states that every day, she worries about how she will be treated by professors, peers, and the world if they learn of her mental illness. If the student reveals she is bipolar to a professor their interactions may change negatively. In short, once an adolescent decides to make an invisible identity visible, she cannot change her mind and render it invisible unless she decides to change key developmental contexts such as friendship groups, schools, or jobs, leaves her home community to attend college, or reinvents herself in a new community.
Researchers, educators, and parents can support and help girls and women in their identity development journeys. As Carol Gilligan, Diane Hughes, and their colleagues showed in their landmark work, parents can teach their children coping strategies for a prejudicial sexist, racist, and classist world that expects them to not only be different from boys and men, but “less than” in whatever comparison dimension—leadership, science, math, athletics, etc.—is being assessed. Moreover, as William Damon (2008) has demonstrated superbly in his research, we need to help children and adolescents develop a sense of purpose and goals that will help them negotiate their many identities and life challenges and give them the skills they need to advocate for themselves and their causes. Purpose and passion for crafting their identity stories and futures will help girls and women not only become competent adults, but will also help their communities—local and global—navigate current and future crises.
 Steele describes the life story of Anatole Broyard, a well-respected light-skinned Black writer in the U.S. who grew up in a mixed-race Black family but lived his adult life as white after he realized the color of his skin would limit his chances of making a living in his chosen profession and limit his opportunities to support his family.
Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: how young people find their calling in life. NY: Simon and Shuster.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis. NY: Basic Books.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity. NY: Simon and Shuster.
Hughes, D. L., Rivas, D., Foust, M., Hagelskamp, C., Gersick, S., & Way, N. (2008). How to catch a moonbeam: A mixed-methods approach to understanding ethnic socialization in ethnically diverse families. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do. NY: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.