In their tween and teenage years, girls become dramatically less self-assured—a feeling that often lasts through adulthood.
CLAIRE SHIPMAN, KATTY KAY & JILLELLYN RILEY
SEP 20, 2018
The change can be baffling to many parents: Their young girls are masters of the universe, full of gutsy fire. But as puberty sets in, their confidence nose-dives, and those same daughters can transform into unrecognizably timid, cautious, risk-averse versions of their former self.
Over the course of writing our latest book, we spoke with hundreds of tween and teen girls who detailed a striking number of things they don’t feel confident about: “making new friends,” “the way I dress,” “speaking in a group.” In our research, we worked with Ypulse, a polling firm that focuses on tweens and teens, to survey more than 1,300 girls from the ages of 8 to 18 and their parents. (The sample was broadly representative of the country’s teen population in terms of race and geographic distribution.) The data is more dramatic than we’d imagined: The girls surveyed were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of 0 to 10, and from the ages of 8 to 14, the average of girls’ responses fell from approximately 8.5 to 6—a drop-off of 30 percent.
Until the age of 12, there was virtually no difference in confidence between boys and girls. But, because of the drop-off girls experienced during puberty, by the age of 14 the average girl was far less confident than the average boy. Many boys, the survey suggested, do experience some hits to their confidence entering their teens, but nothing like what girls experience. (The Ypulse survey did not break down its findings at a granular enough level to discern if there was any correlation between kids’ race or income level and their self-described confidence.)
The female tween and early-teen confidence plunge is especially striking because multiple measures suggest that girls in middle and high school are, generally speaking, outperforming boys academically, and many people mistake their success for confidence. But the girls we talked with and polled detailed, instead, a worrisome shift. From girls 12 and under, we heard things such as “I make friends really easily—I can go up to anyone and start a conversation” and “I love writing poetry and I don’t care if anyone else thinks it’s good or bad.” A year or more into their teens, it was “I feel like everybody is so smart and pretty and I’m just this ugly girl without friends,” and “I feel that if I acted like my true self that no one would like me.”
Confidence is an essential ingredient for turning thoughts into action, wishes into reality. Moreover, when deployed, confidence can perpetuate and multiply itself. As boys and girls (and men and women) take risks and see the payoffs, they gain the courage to take more risks in the future. Conversely, confidence’s absence can inhibit the very sorts of behaviors—risk taking, failure, and perseverance—that build it back up. So the cratering of confidence in girls is especially troubling because of long-term implications. It can mean that risks are avoided again and again, and confidence isn’t being stockpiled for the future. And indeed, the confidence gender gap that opens at puberty often remains throughout adulthood.
What makes confidence building so much more elusive for so many tween and teen girls? A few things stand out. The habit of what psychologists call rumination—essentially, dwelling extensively on negative feelings—is more prevalent in women than in men, and often starts at puberty. This can make girls more cautious, and less inclined toward risk taking. Additionally, at an early age, parents and teachers frequently encourage and reward girls’ people-pleasing, perfectionistic behavior, without understanding the consequences. Often, this is because it just makes parents’ and teachers’ lives easier: In a busy household or noisy classroom, who doesn’t want kids who color within the lines, follow directions, and don’t cause problems? But perfectionism, of course, inhibits risk taking, a willingness to fail, and valuable psychological growth. “If life were one long grade school,” Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist who wrote The Growth Mindset, explained to us in an interview for our first book, women “would be the undisputed rulers of the world. But life isn’t one long grade school.”
In fact, later in life, the goalposts shift considerably. “It rewards people who take risks and rebound,” Dweck added. And the boys in our survey seemed to have a greater appetite for risk taking: Our poll shows that from ages 8 to 14 boys are more likely than girls to describe themselves as confident, strong, adventurous, and fearless.
Teen and tween girls are focused instead, according to our polling data, on setting impossibly high standards for themselves: Our polling data shows that the proportion of girls who say they are not allowed to fail rises from 18 to 45 percent from the ages of 12 to 13. In their efforts to please everyone, achieve more, and follow rules, many girls are actually nurturing traits in themselves that set them up to struggle in the long run. Adding to this, many girls are also wise enough by the age of 12 to see that the world still treats men and women differently—that dings their confidence, too.
Social media doesn’t help either, and its ill effects might hit girls harder than boys. The internet can multiply social stresses astronomically. In the past, girls could have an overwhelming day at school, fight with a friend, and get a “bad” grade, but go home and get some distance. There’s no distance anymore—only constant, instant, and public condemnation or praise.
There’s evidence that tweaking the status quo, and acclimating girls at this critical age to more risk taking and failure, makes a difference. Some of the most compelling data links participation in sports to professional success. A study from the accounting firm EY and espnW, ESPN’s women’s site, found that 94 percent of the women currently with C-suite jobs in the U.S. played competitive sports. It’s not only through athletics that young girls can gain confidence; sport is simply an organized and easily available opportunity to experience loss, failure, and resilience. But the same skills can be acquired by participating on a debate team, learning to cook, or speaking up on behalf of a cause like animal welfare—as long as there is a move outside of her comfort zone, and a process of struggle and mastery, confidence will usually be the result.
It’s essential to close the gap, and to do so early, because the long-term effects of these dynamics hurt not only girls, but the women they become, many of whom, within a few years of entering the workforce, experience another confidence drop, and a drop in aspirations. Their rule-following, good-girl methods have been celebrated, rewarded by a structured educational and societal system. It’s a shock to arrive in the adult world and discover a dramatically new playing field: Failure is okay. Risk is worth it. No wonder they struggle: Their whole life, to date, they’ve internalized just the opposite, a societal bait and switch that should be recognized. Girls are adept at learning—they just need the right study guide.
Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men—and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence. Here’s why, and what to do about it.
for years, we women have kept our heads down and played by the rules. We’ve been certain that with enough hard work, our natural talents would be recognized and rewarded.
We’ve made undeniable progress. In the United States, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management. Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Our competence has never been more obvious. Those who closely follow society’s shifting values see the world moving in a female direction.
And yet, as we’ve worked, ever diligent, the men around us have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more. The statistics are well known: at the top, especially, women are nearly absent, and our numbers are barely increasing. Half a century since women first forced open the boardroom doors, our career trajectories still look very different from men’s.
Some observers say children change our priorities, and there is some truth in this claim. Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. There’s truth in that, too. But these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.
The elusive nature of confidence has intrigued us ever since we started work on our 2009 book, Womenomics, which looked at the many positive changes unfolding for women. To our surprise, as we talked with women, dozens of them, all accomplished and credentialed, we kept bumping up against a dark spot that we couldn’t quite identify, a force clearly holding them back. Why did the successful investment banker mention to us that she didn’t really deserve the big promotion she’d just got? What did it mean when the engineer who’d been a pioneer in her industry for decades told us offhandedly that she wasn’t sure she was really the best choice to run her firm’s new big project? In two decades of covering American politics as journalists, we realized, we have between us interviewed some of the most influential women in the nation. In our jobs and our lives, we walk among people you would assume brim with confidence. And yet our experience suggests that the power centers of this nation are zones of female self-doubt—that is, when they include women at all.
We know the feeling firsthand. Comparing notes about confidence over dinner one night last year, despite how well we knew each other, was a revelation. Katty got a degree from a top university, speaks several languages, and yet had spent her life convinced that she just wasn’t intelligent enough to compete for the most-prestigious jobs in journalism. She still entertained the notion that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth.
Claire found that implausible, laughable really, and yet she had a habit of telling people she was “just lucky”—in the right place at the right time—when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s. And she, too, for years, routinely deferred to the alpha-male journalists around her, assuming that because they were so much louder, so much more certain, they just knew more. She subconsciously believed that they had a right to talk more on television. But were they really more competent? Or just more self-assured?
We began to talk with other highly successful women, hoping to find instructive examples of raw, flourishing female confidence. But the more closely we looked, the more we instead found evidence of its shortage.
The All-Star WNBA player Monique Currie, of the Washington Mystics, displays dazzling agility and power on the basketball court. On the subject of confidence, however, she sounded disconcertingly like us. Currie rolled her eyes when we asked whether her wellspring of confidence was as deep as that of a male athlete. “For guys,” she said, in a slightly mystified, irritated tone, “I think they have maybe 13- or 15-player rosters, but all the way down to the last player on the bench, who doesn’t get to play a single minute, I feel like his confidence is just as big as the superstar of the team.” She smiled and shook her head. “For women, it’s not like that.”
The tech entrepreneur Clara Shih, who founded the successful social-media company Hearsay Social in 2010 and joined the board of Starbucks at the tender age of 29, is one of the few female CEOs in the still-macho world of Silicon Valley. But as an undergrad at Stanford, she told us, she was convinced that courses she found difficult were easy for others. Although Shih would go on to graduate with the highest GPA of any computer-science major in her class, she told us that at times she “felt like an imposter.” As it happens, this is essentially what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told us a year before her book, Lean In, was published: “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
We were inspired by these conversations, and many more, to write a book on the subject, with a particular eye to whether a lack of confidence might be holding women back. We ended up covering much more territory than we’d originally anticipated, ranging from the trait’s genetic components to how it manifests itself in animals to what coaches and psychologists have learned about cultivating it. Much of what we discovered turns out to be relevant to both women and men.
Even as our understanding of confidence expanded, however, we found that our original suspicion was dead-on: there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.
A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.
The shortage of female confidence is increasingly well quantified and well documented. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management, in the United Kingdom, surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.
Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Women Don’t Ask, has found, in studies of business-school students, that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do. At Manchester Business School, in England, professor Marilyn Davidson has seen the same phenomenon, and believes that it comes from a lack of confidence. Each year she asks her students what they expect to earn, and what they deserve to earn, five years after graduation. “I’ve been doing this for about seven years,” she has written, “and every year there are massive differences between the male and female responses.” On average, she reports, the men think they deserve $80,000 a year and the women $64,000—or 20 percent less.
A meticulous 2003 study by the Cornell psychologist David Dunning and the Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger homed in on the relationship between female confidence and competence. At the time, Dunning and a Cornell colleague, Justin Kruger, were just finishing their seminal work on something that’s since been dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect: the tendency for some people to substantially overestimate their abilities. The less competent people are, the more they overestimate their abilities—which makes a strange kind of sense.
Dunning and Ehrlinger wanted to focus specifically on women, and the impact of women’s preconceived notions about their own ability on their confidence. They gave male and female college students a quiz on scientific reasoning. Before the quiz, the students rated their own scientific skills. “We wanted to see whether your general perception of Am I good in science? shapes your impression of something that should be separate: Did I get this question right?,” Ehrlinger said. The women rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability: on a scale of 1 to 10, the women gave themselves a 6.5 on average, and the men gave themselves a 7.6. When it came to assessing how well they answered the questions, the women thought they got 5.8 out of 10 questions right; men, 7.1. And how did they actually perform? Their average was almost the same—women got 7.5 out of 10 right and men 7.9.
To show the real-world impact of self-perception, the students were then invited—having no knowledge of how they’d performed—to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men. “That was a proxy for whether women might seek out certain opportunities,” Ehrlinger told us. “Because they are less confident in general in their abilities, that led them not to want to pursue future opportunities.”
In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.
Talking with Ehrlinger, we were reminded of something Hewlett-Packard discovered several years ago, when it was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.
Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, started studying the problem of self-perception decades ago. “As a young professor,” she told us, “I would set up a test where I’d ask men and women how they thought they were going to do on a variety of tasks.” She found that the men consistently overestimated their abilities and subsequent performance, and that the women routinely underestimated both. The actual performances did not differ in quality. “It is one of the most consistent findings you can have,” Major says of the experiment. Today, when she wants to give her students an example of a study whose results are utterly predictable, she points to this one.
On the other side of the country, the same thing plays out every day in Victoria Brescoll’s lecture hall at Yale’s School of Management. M.B.A. students are nurtured specifically to project confidence in the fashion demanded by today’s business world. But although all of her students are top-of-the-chart smart, she’s been startled to uncover her female students’ lack of belief in themselves.
“There’s just a natural sort of feeling among the women that they will not get a prestigious job, so why bother trying,” she explained. “Or they think that they are not totally competent in the area, so they’re not going to go for it.” As a result, female students tend to opt out. “They end up going into less competitive fields, like human resources or marketing,” she said. “They don’t go for finance, investment banks, or senior-track faculty positions.”
And the men?
“I think that’s really interesting,” Brescoll said with a laugh, “because the men go into everything just assuming that they’re awesome and thinking, Who wouldn’t want me?”
Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. If anything, men tilt toward overconfidence—and we were surprised to learn that they come by that state quite naturally. They aren’t consciously trying to fool anyone. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, has come up with a term for this phenomenon: honest overconfidence. In a study he published in 2011, men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was.
We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist. One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense. He eventually concluded that confidence should be a formal part of the performance-review process, because it is such an important aspect of doing business.
The fact is, overconfidence can get you far in life. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist who works in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career of studying overconfidence. In 2009, he conducted some novel tests to compare the relative value of confidence and competence. He gave a group of 242 students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.
Among the names were some well-disguised fakes: a Queen Shaddock made an appearance, as did a Galileo Lovano, and an event dubbed Murphy’s Last Ride. The experiment was a way of measuring excessive confidence, Anderson reasoned. The fact that some students checked the fakes instead of simply leaving them blank suggested that they believed they knew more than they actually did. At the end of the semester, Anderson asked the students to rate one another in a survey designed to assess each individual’s prominence within the group. The students who had picked the most fakes had achieved the highest status.
Confidence, Anderson told us, matters just as much as competence. We didn’t want to believe it, and we pressed him for alternative theories. But deep down, we knew we’d seen the same phenomenon for years. Within any given organization, be it an investment bank or the PTA, some individuals tend to be more admired and more listened to than others. They are not necessarily the most knowledgeable or capable people in the room, but they are the most self-assured.
“When people are confident, when they think they are good at something, regardless of how good they actually are, they display a lot of confident nonverbal and verbal behavior,” Anderson said. He mentioned expansive body language, a lower vocal tone, and a tendency to speak early and often in a calm, relaxed manner. “They do a lot of things that make them look very confident in the eyes of others,” he added. “Whether they are good or not is kind of irrelevant.” Kind of irrelevant. Infuriatingly, a lack of competence doesn’t necessarily have negative consequences. Among Anderson’s students, those who displayed more confidence than competence were admired by the rest of the group and awarded a high social status. “The most confident people were just considered the most beloved in the group,” he said. “Their overconfidence did not come across as narcissistic.”
That is a crucial point. True overconfidence is not mere bluster. Anderson thinks the reason extremely confident people don’t alienate others is that they aren’t faking it. They genuinely believe they are good, and that self-belief is what comes across. Fake confidence, he told us, just doesn’t work in the same way. Studies Anderson is now conducting suggest that others can see the “tells.” No matter how much bravado someone musters, when he doesn’t genuinely believe he is good, others pick up on his shifting eyes and rising voice and other giveaways. Most people can spot fake confidence from a mile away.
Women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent.
Once we got over our feeling that Anderson’s work suggests a world that is deeply unfair, we could see a useful lesson: For decades, women have misunderstood an important law of the professional jungle. It’s not enough to keep one’s head down and plug away, checking items off a list. Having talent isn’t merely about being competent; confidence is a part of that talent. You have to have it to excel.
We also began to see that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance—or other people—for their successes. (Men seem to do the opposite.) David Dunning, the Cornell psychologist, offered the following case in point: In Cornell’s math Ph.D. program, he’s observed, there’s a particular course during which the going inevitably gets tough. Dunning has noticed that male students typically recognize the hurdle for what it is, and respond to their lower grades by saying, “Wow, this is a tough class.” That’s what’s known as external attribution, and in a situation like this, it’s usually a healthy sign of resilience. Women tend to respond differently. When the course gets hard, Dunning told us, their reaction is more likely to be “You see, I knew I wasn’t good enough.” That’s internal attribution, and it can be debilitating.
Perfectionism is another confidence killer. Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required. We watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified. We fixate on our performance at home, at school, at work, at yoga class, even on vacation. We obsess as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as friends, as cooks, as athletes. Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, the authors of The Plateau Effect, call this tendency the “enemy of the good,” leading as it does to hours of wasted time. The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done.
So where does all of this start? If women are competent and hardworking enough to outpace men in school, why is it so difficult to keep up later on? As with so many questions involving human behavior, both nature and nurture are implicated in the answers.
The very suggestion that male and female brains might be built differently and function in disparate ways has long been a taboo subject among women, out of fear that any difference would be used against us. For decades—for centuries, actually—differences (real or imagined) were used against us. So let’s be clear: male and female brains are vastly more alike than they are different. You can’t look at scans of two random brains and clearly identify which is male and which is female. Moreover, each individual’s confidence level is influenced by a host of genetic factors that do not seem to have anything to do with his or her sex.
Girls lose confidence, so they quit competing in sports, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.
Yet male and female brains do display differences in structure and chemistry, differences that may encourage unique patterns of thinking and behavior, and that could thereby affect confidence. This is a busy area of inquiry, with a steady stream of new—if frequently contradictory, and controversial—findings. Some of the research raises the intriguing possibility that brain structure could figure into variations between the way men and women respond to challenging or threatening circumstances. Take, for example, the amygdalae, sometimes described as the brain’s primitive fear centers. They are involved in processing emotional memory and responding to stressful situations. Studies using fMRI scans have found that women tend to activate their amygdalae more easily in response to negative emotional stimuli than men do—suggesting that women are more likely than men to form strong emotional memories of negative events. This difference seems to provide a physical basis for a tendency that’s been observed in behavioral studies: compared with men, women are more apt to ruminate over what’s gone wrong in the past. Or consider the anterior cingulate cortex. This little part of the brain helps us recognize errors and weigh options; some people call it the worrywart center. And, yes, it’s larger in women. In evolutionary terms, there are undoubtedly benefits to differences like these: women seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats. Yet such qualities are a mixed blessing today.
You could say the same about hormonal influences on cognition and behavior. We all know testosterone and estrogen as the forces behind many of the basic, overt differences between men and women. It turns out they are involved in subtler personality dynamics as well. The main hormonal driver for women is, of course, estrogen. By supporting the part of the brain involved in social skills and observations, estrogen seems to encourage bonding and connection, while discouraging conflict and risk taking—tendencies that might well hinder confidence in some contexts.
Testosterone, on the other hand, helps to fuel what often looks like classic male confidence. Men have about 10 times more testosterone pumping through their system than women do, and it affects everything from speed to strength to muscle size to competitive instinct. It is thought of as the hormone that encourages a focus on winning and demonstrating power, and for good reason. Recent research has tied high testosterone levels to an appetite for risk taking. In a series of studies, scientists from Cambridge University followed male traders at a London hedge fund, all high rollers (with annual bonuses greater than $5 million). Using saliva samples, the researchers measured the men’s testosterone levels at the start and end of each day. On days when traders began with higher levels of testosterone, they made riskier trades. When those trades paid off, their testosterone levels surged further. One trader saw his testosterone level rise 74 percent over a six-day winning streak.
There’s a downside to testosterone, to be sure. As we’ve just seen, higher levels of the hormone fuel risk taking, and winning yields still more testosterone. This dynamic, sometimes known as the “winner effect,” can be dangerous: animals can become so aggressive and overconfident after winning fights that they take fatal risks. Moreover, a testosterone-laced decision isn’t always a better one. In research conducted at University College London, women who were given testosterone were less able to collaborate, and wrong more often. And several studies of female hedge-fund managers show that taking the longer view and trading less can pay off: investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperform those run by male managers.
So what are the implications of all this? The essential chicken-and-egg question still to be answered is to what extent these differences between men and women are inherent, and to what extent they are a result of life experiences. The answer is far from clear-cut, but new work on brain plasticity is generating growing evidence that our brains do change in response to our environment. Even hormone levels may be less preordained than one might suppose: researchers have found that testosterone levels in men decline when they spend more time with their children.
For some clues about the role that nurture plays in the confidence gap, let’s look to a few formative places: the elementary-school classroom, the playground, and the sports field. School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy. But while being a “good girl” may pay off in the classroom, it doesn’t prepare us very well for the real world. As Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, put it to us: “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.”
It’s easier for young girls than for young boys to behave: As is well established, they start elementary school with a developmental edge in some key areas. They have longer attention spans, more-advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, and greater social adeptness. They generally don’t charge through the halls like wild animals, or get into fights during recess. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly. “Girls seem to be more easily socialized,” Dweck says. “They get a lot of praise for being perfect.” In turn, they begin to crave the approval they get for being good. There’s certainly no harm intended by overworked, overstressed teachers (or parents). Who doesn’t want a kid who works hard and doesn’t cause a lot of trouble?
What doomed the women was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice not to try.
And yet the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. “When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct,” Dweck writes in Mindset. Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. “Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,” she says, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.”
Boys also benefit from the lessons they learn—or, more to the point, the lessons they teach one another—during recess and after school. From kindergarten on, they roughhouse, tease one another, point out one another’s limitations, and call one another morons and slobs. In the process, Dweck contends, such evaluations “lose a lot of their power.” Boys thus make one another more resilient. Other psychologists we spoke with believe that this playground mentality encourages them later, as men, to let other people’s tough remarks slide off their backs. Similarly, on the sports field, they learn not only to relish wins but also to flick off losses.
Too many girls, by contrast, miss out on really valuable lessons outside of school. We all know that playing sports is good for kids, but we were surprised to learn just how extensive the benefits are, and how relevant to confidence. Studies evaluating the impact of the 1972 Title IX legislation, which made it illegal for public schools to spend more on boys’ athletics than on girls’, have found that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult. Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. And yet, despite Title IX, fewer girls than boys participate in athletics, and many who do quit early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls are still six times as likely as boys to drop off sports teams, with the steepest decline in participation coming during adolescence. This is probably because girls suffer a larger decrease in self-esteem during that time than do boys.
What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it. They leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant Spanish subjunctives, proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please. But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and they don’t realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.
Consider the following tale of two employees. A female friend of ours in New York was supervising two 20‑something junior staffers, one female (whom we will call Rebecca) and one male (whom we will call Robert). Even though Robert had been on the job for only a few months, he was already stopping by our friend’s office to make off-the-cuff pitches for new ad campaigns, to comment on business strategy, and to share unsolicited opinions about magazine articles he’d recently read. Our friend often found herself shooting down his ideas, correcting his misperceptions, and sending him off for further research. “No problem” seemed to be his attitude. Sometimes he’d respond with a counterargument; other times, he’d grin and shrug his shoulders as he headed back to his desk. A few days later, he’d be back in to pitch more ideas and to update her on what he was doing, even if all he had to say was “I’m still working on this.”
Our friend was struck by how easily Robert engaged her, and how markedly different his behavior was from that of Rebecca, with whom she’d worked for several years. Rebecca still made appointments to speak with her and always prepared a list of issues for their discussions. She was mostly quiet in meetings with clients, focused as she was on taking careful notes. She never blurted out her ideas; she wrote them up with comprehensive analyses of pros and cons. Rebecca was prepared and hardworking, and yet, even though our friend was frequently annoyed by Robert’s assertiveness, she was more impressed by him. She admired his willingness to be wrong and his ability to absorb criticism without being discouraged. Rebecca, by contrast, took negative feedback hard, sometimes responding with tears and a trip to her own office to collect herself before the conversation could continue.
Our friend had come to rely on and value Rebecca, but she had a feeling it was Robert’s star that would rise. It was only a matter of time before one of his many ideas would strike the right note, and he’d be off and running—probably, our friend was beginning to fear, while Rebecca was left behind, enjoying the respect of her colleagues but not a higher salary, more responsibilities, or a more important title.
Here’s a thorny question: If Rebecca did behave just like Robert, exhibiting his kind of confidence, what would her boss think then? There is evidence that Rebecca wouldn’t fare so well, whether her boss was male or female.
Which is why any discussion of this subject requires a major caveat. Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.
Back at the Yale School of Management, Victoria Brescoll has tested the thesis that the more senior a woman is, the more she makes a conscious effort to play down her volubility—the reverse of how most men handle power. In the first of two experiments, she asked 206 participants, both men and women, to imagine themselves as either the most senior figure or the most junior figure in a meeting. Then she asked them how much they’d talk. Those men who’d imagined themselves as the senior figure reported that they would talk more; men who’d picked the junior position said they’d talk less. But women who’d selected the high-ranking role said they would talk the same amount as those women who’d envisioned themselves as the low-ranking woman. Asked why, they said they didn’t want to be disliked, or seem out of line. In Brescoll’s next experiment, men and women rated a fictitious female CEO who talked more than other people. The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.
So confident women can find themselves in a catch-22. For now, though, for Rebecca and for most women, coming across as too confident is not the problem.
When we embarked on this quest two years ago, we had a slight conflict of interest. As journalists, we were exhilarated by the puzzle of why high-achieving women were so lacking in confidence, but as women, we grew gloomy. Delving into research and interviews, we more than once found ourselves wondering whether the entire female sex was doomed to feel less than self-assured. Biology, upbringing, society: all seemed to be conspiring against women’s confidence.
But as our understanding of this elusive quality shifted, we began to see the outlines of a remedy. Confidence is not, as we once believed, just feeling good about yourself. If women simply needed a few words of reassurance, they’d have commandeered the corner office long ago. Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” Of course, other factors also contribute to action. “If the action involves something scary, then what we call courage might also be needed,” Petty explained. “Or if it’s difficult, a strong will to persist might also be needed. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role.” But confidence, he told us, is essential, because it applies in more situations than these other traits do. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.
The simplicity is compelling, and the notion that confidence and action are interrelated suggests a virtuous circle. Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure.
We found perhaps the most striking illustration of how the connection between action and confidence might play out to women’s benefit in Milan. There we tracked down Zachary Estes, a research psychologist who’s long been curious about the confidence disparity between men and women. A few years ago, he gave 500 students a series of tests that involved reorganizing 3‑D images on a computer screen. He was testing a couple of things—the idea that confidence can be manipulated and the idea that, in some areas, women have less of it than men.
When Estes had the students solve a series of these spatial puzzles, the women scored measurably worse than the men did. But when he looked at the results more closely, he found that the women had done poorly because they hadn’t even attempted to answer a lot of the questions. So he repeated the experiment, this time telling the students they had to at least try to solve all the puzzles. And guess what: the women’s scores increased sharply, matching the men’s. Maddening. Yet also hopeful.
Estes’s work illustrates a key point: the natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do.
Using a different test, Estes asked everyone to answer every question. Both the men and the women got 80 percent right, suggesting identical ability levels. He then tested the students again and asked them, after each question, to report their confidence in their answer. Just having to think about whether they felt certain of their answer changed their ability to do well. The women’s scores dipped to 75 percent, while the men’s jumped to 93. One little nudge asking women how sure they are about something rattles their world, while the same gesture reminds men that they’re terrific.
Finally, Estes decided to attempt a direct confidence boost. He told some members of the group, completely at random, that they had done very well on the previous test. On the next test they took, those men and women improved their scores dramatically. It was a clear measure of how confidence can be self-perpetuating.
These results could not be more relevant to understanding the confidence gap, and figuring out how to close it. What doomed the women in Estes’s lab was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice they made not to try.
The advice implicit in such findings is hardly unfamiliar: to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. And yet, there is something very powerful about this prescription, aligning as it does with everything research tells us about the sources of female reticence.
Almost daily, new evidence emerges of just how much our brains can change over the course of our lives, in response to shifting thought patterns and behavior. If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone. What the neuroscientists call plasticity, we call hope.
Here’s a former college professor and high school AP teacher’s negative take on the value of Advanced Placement courses. Most US high schools offer many AP courses, which generally require a greater level of effort for success and often help kids opt-out of intro level college courses. What’s your opinion on the value of AP classes?
The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from the courses—and, in an uncertain environment, students keep being suckered.
Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes. To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That’s the case with Advanced Placement courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.
That’s a pretty strong claim, right? You bet. But why not be straightforward when discussing a scam the scale and audacity of which would raise Bernie Madoff’s eyebrows?
The miscellany of AP courses offered in U.S. high schools under the imprimatur of the College Board probably started with good intentions. The idea, going back to the 1950s, was to offer college-level courses and exams to high-school students. The courses allegedly provide students the kind of rigorous academic experience they will encounter in college as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for the work.
Sounds pretty good. And every year, millions of high-school students enroll in the courses that are offered in 39 different subjects. They do so at an annual growth rate almost ten times the yearly percentage increase in the number of high school graduates. If there weren’t something good about AP, would participation in the AP offerings be so high?
Interestingly, the evidence providing the clearest positive argument for AP participation is that high performance in AP courses correlates with better college grades and higher graduation rates, especially in science courses. But that’s faint praise. It’s the same as saying that students who do best in high school will do better in college and are more likely to graduate.
My beef with AP courses isn’t novel. The program has a bountiful supply of critics, many of them in the popular press (see here and here), and many increasingly coming from academia as well (see here). The criticisms comport, in every particular, with my own experience of having taught an AP American Government and Politics course for ten years.
AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.
The traditional monetary argument for AP courses — that they can enable an ambitious and hardworking student to avoid a semester or even a year of college tuition through the early accumulation of credits — often no longer holds. Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses; they simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major. And more and more students say that’s a bad idea, and that they’re better off taking their department’s courses.
The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.
Despite the rapidly growing enrollments in AP courses, large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game. And so, in this as in so many other ways, they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.
The AP program imposes “substantial opportunity costs” on non-AP students in the form of what a school gives up in order to offer AP courses, which often enjoy smaller class sizes and some of the better teachers. Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as “honors” courses. These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they’re of special concern in low-income school districts.
To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.
In short, somewhere along the way over the past half-century, the AP idea got corrupted.
Many critics lay the blame on the College Board itself, a huge “non-profit” organization that operates like a big business. The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined. The College Board’s profits for 2009, the most recent year for which records were available, were 8.6 percent of revenue, which would be respectable even for a for-profit corporation. “When a non-profit company is earning those profits, something is wrong,” says Americans for Educational Testing Reform. (The AETR’s “report card” on the College Board awards a grade of D and cites numerous “areas of misconduct” by the College Board.)
It’s clear the College Board has the mentality of a voracious corporation, charging $89 a shot for an exam to millions of students who have no business taking it.
The college admissions process today is a total crapshoot. At least for the most competitive colleges, nobody in the applicant pool has any certainty anymore as to what will secure admission. In the face of that uncertainty, one rational form of behavior is to take the shotgun approach, blasting away at the admissions committee with every weapon in the student’s armory: multiple AP courses, ridiculous amounts of extracurricular activity, and do-gooder volunteer work rivaling Mother Teresa’s.
Lots of guidance counselors will advise families and students that a rational alternative is to opt out of that race. Concentrate on one or two things. Excel at them. I agree.
But it shouldn’t be the customer’s responsibility to stop a scam. The customer buys into it because the con artist is so skillful and the world is so uncertain. The only way to stop the College Boards of the world is to expose them. Tell people to be wary.
Research shows that interracial friendships decline as kids enter adolescence—and that teachers may play a role.
MELINDA D. ANDERSON JUN 14, 2016
The image of black and white children hand-in-hand is possibly the most well-known and most often quoted line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the years, black and white youngsters playing together has evolved from a civil-rights leader’s vision of racial equality to a clothing retailer’s marketing campaign, and in the process spawned a cultural meme—signaling everything from innocence and hope to a world free of interpersonal racism. Yet black and white childhood friendships, an inspiring notion, rarely happen organically.
According to a new study of elementary- and middle-school students, teacher behaviors may shape how students select and maintain friends and affect the longevity of interracial friendships. The study, led by researchers with New York University’s Steinhardt School, finds that as students move through a single school year, from the fall through the spring semester, their number of cross-racial friendships decreases. What’s more, students’ perceptions of their teachers—who may treat children in the same class differently, for example—influenced the rate of growth in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring.
Elise Cappella, an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU and the study’s lead author, said the group started out with a common understanding, supported by popular wisdom and established research, that as young people approach and enter adolescence, their likelihood of forming friendships across racial and ethnic groups decreases. “We wanted to try to understand what might be influencing that change … and we wanted to go beyond simply understanding the opportunity piece [greater numbers of diverse peers] to understanding what parts of this social process or the teaching practices might make a difference in the changes that occur.”
Access to diversity is only the first step, not the destination.
The research is drawn from a longitudinal study of the school experiences of 553 black and white students in a racially diverse, middle-class, and suburban unidentified district. That study, the Early Adolescent Development Study, collected detailed self-reported surveys during the 1996-97 school year from children ages 8 through 12 in grades three through five: 61 percent white, 39 percent black, with equal numbers of male and female students.
It’s a notable data set for a couple reasons, Cappella said, emphasizing that in the age range studied “children still form most of their friendships in classrooms and in schools. That was the case in 1996, and that’s still the case in 2016.” The data in the Early Adolescent Development Study is also particularly useful for analyzing interracial friendships because it was conducted in a school district that at the time had relatively low levels of tracking and high levels of integration—an unusual combination—facilitating an analysis of factors such as cross-racial friendships. Further, because the composition of the class and the actual teacher didn’t change, “if there were changes in cross- and same-race friendships [during] that year, we can isolate the effect [to] some aspect of that classroom.”
After calculating the racial composition of the students’ classes, the study’s authors used an index to measure how many same-race friendships would be expected if friendships were randomly distributed. Despite the district’s high level of racial integration, researchers found that the number of same-race friends grew for both black and white children over the school year, with white and older students showing the largest increases.
In the fall of the third grade, black students had 15 percent fewer same-race friendships and white students had 2 percent more same-race friends than would be expected by random chance. By the spring, black third-graders had 5 percent fewer same-race friendships than would be expected by random chance and white third-graders had 6 percent more. Among fifth-graders, black students started out with 2 percent more same-race friends than expected, and white students started out with 23 percent more. By year-end, fifth-grade black students had 10 percent more friends of the same race than expected and white students had 33 percent more.
As the argument goes and studies prove, children of all backgrounds benefit from diversified classrooms and schools where they can interact with peers of different races and ethnicities. Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, concluded in a comprehensive review of research on racial and ethnic diversity in schools that “a racially integrated student body is necessary to obtain cross-racial understanding, which may lead to a reduction of harmful stereotypes and bias.” But access to diversity is only the first step, not the destination, said Cappella, noting that the study points to the need for teachers to create classrooms where interracial friendships can develop and grow.
The influence of teachers on students’ cross-racial bonds manifests itself in two key ways. Researchers found smaller increases in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring in classrooms where student perceptions of teachers’ warmth, respect, and trust—“My teacher pays attention to my feelings” and “My teacher helps children feel good about themselves”— were rated highest. And black children were more likely to make friends with white classmates during the school year in classrooms where teachers received high rankings on differential treatment—the survey asked children to rate their teacher’s behavior toward a hypothetical high- or low-achieving peer.
While the study did not establish that teachers were favoring one racial group over another, researchers theorized based on prior evidence that black children choose to befriend more white peers “as they begin to internalize the higher value their teachers place on the white students.” A study from Johns Hopkins University published in March also confirmed the comparatively low expectations white teachers have for black students.
How parents arrange get-togethers outside of school can “deepen friendships while allowing others to flounder.”
Jennifer Orr, a white elementary-school teacher in northern Virginia, said she was fascinated on a personal and professional level by the study’s analysis. Her oldest daughter, now in seventh grade, attended Annandale Terrace Elementary, a highly diverse school, from grades kindergarten through 5. “Her close circle [of friends] included a Korean girl, a few Latino girls and boys, and at least one girl from the Middle East, [but] she has only kept up with two friends from there: another white girl and a white boy.” As a parent, Orr offered a caveat to the study’s findings, bringing the role of parents into the picture. “The immediate thing that came to my mind … was how much parents may play a role” with race or ethnicity shaping how parents arrange get-togethers outside of school that can “deepen friendships while allowing others to flounder.”
From her vantage point as a former teacher at Annandale Terrace for 16 years, Orr said she strived to create a classroom environment that fostered friendships across races and ethnicities through activities and lessons. When assigning class projects she encouraged diverse groupings of fourth- and fifth-graders to solidify existing friendships, adding “that’s what strikes me the most from this study: The idea that friendships narrow during this age range.” Orr also turned to literature, using books with interracial friendships “to help kids see these friendships as normal and good.”
Keffrelyn Brown, an associate professor of cultural studies in the education college at the University of Texas at Austin, upholds the idea that teachers are fundamental to leveraging the promise of integrated schooling. Brown, who was a classroom teacher before becoming a researcher and teacher educator, stressed that “integration cannot only occur at the surface level. It must be seamlessly found across all [parts] of the … teaching and learning processes.”
The creation of schools with racial and socioeconomic diversity must be complimented by classrooms that affirm all students, Brown said. “It’s about cultivating a community of learners who are invested in the well-being of the community,” she explained, envisioning a learning space that is keenly attentive to issues of justice, fairness, and equity.
As validated by the study, children’s perceptions of teachers’ traits are very important—and unlike curriculum decisions and other pressures, it’s the one aspect that teachers can control. Cappella, the NYU researcher, said it’s the daily interactions that teachers have with their students in the classroom—modeling how you treat one another and how you listen to one another—that can bolster the likelihood of interracial friendships enduring.
“When teachers [show] that everyone is valued … that everyone deserves warmth and support, then that trickles down to the students, particularly at this age,” she said. “Those [actions] are the most salient and potentially the most powerful for influencing students in a more implicit way.”
ASPEN, Colo.—At whatever age smart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I’m smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think:Oh no, I’m not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
“Mistakes grow your brain,” as the professor of mathematics education at Stanford University Jo Boaler put it on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Atlantic. I wondered why, then, my brain is not so distended that it spills out of my ears and nose. I should have to stuff it back inside like a sleeping bag, and I should have to carry Q-tips around during social events as stuffing implements. Boaler notes, more eloquently, that at least a small part of the forebrain called the thalamus can appreciably grow after periods of the sort of cognitive stimulation involved in mistake-making. What matters for improving performance is that a person is challenged, which requires a mindset that is receptive to being challenged—if not actively seeking out challenge and failure. And that may be the most important thing a teacher can impart.
People are born with some innate cognitive differences, but those differences are eclipsed by early achievement, Boaler argues. When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing. And their fixed mindset persists through adulthood. The simple and innocent praising of a smart kid feeds an insidious problem that some researchers track all the way up to gender inequality in STEM careers.
So ending the reign of the S word, as Boaler calls it, is a grand mission. “It’s imperative that we don’t praise kids by telling them they’re smart,” she argued in a Monday lecture to an audience that received her message with many knowing nods. “You can tell kids that they’ve done something fantastic, but don’t label them as smart.”
The idea of a fixed mindset, in which people are smart or not smart, stands in contrast to a growth mindset, in which people become intelligent and knowledgeable through practice. In her 2006 book The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck described the two: People with growth mindsets believe that the harder they work, the smarter they get. And the subtleties of the ways in which we praise kids are related to the mindsets those kids develop.
The group most damaged by fixed-mindset thinking is high-achieving girls, Boaler argues, because it’s girls who are told by society that they probably won’t be as good as boys at math and science. That means girls are only more likely to avoid challenging themselves in science and math, and that aversion to making mistakes leads to less learning and progress. The more that certain disciplines cling to ideas of giftedness, the fewer female Ph.D.s there are in those fields.
“When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory,” Boaler said. 100 percent is not an ideal score. When kids come home from school and announce that they got everything right on their school work, Dweck advises parents to offer some sympathy: Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to learn.
Speaking of percentages, math is a good example of the importance of avoiding the fixed mindset. The idea of a “math person” or a math gene is a primary reason for so much math nihilism, math failure, and “math trauma,” as Boaler called it on Monday. When kids get the idea that they “aren’t math people,” they start a downward trajectory, and their career options shrink immediately and substantially. There is also the common idea of a wall in math: People learn math until they hit a wall where they just can’t keep up. That wall may be trigonometry, and it may be advanced calculus, and it may be calculating a tip. In no other discipline but math are people so given to thinking, instead of I need to practice, just Well, I’m not good.
“Big news,” Boaler said during her lecture, “there is no wall.”
With that, she advanced her Powerpoint and to a slide bearing a rendering of the Kool-Aid Man busting through a brick wall.
“I didn’t know who this was,” she said. “One of my teammates made this slide. I’ve learned that this is Kool-Aid Man.”