Subject choice and anxiety levels can stop girls in primary and secondary school from achieving their best results and enjoying education, says Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology at UNSW, Andrew Martin.
But those same two areas are also keys to empowering girls to seize the opportunities they are skilled for and entitled to, says Professor Martin who, ahead of the International Day of the Girl on 11 October is encouraging educators, parents and girls to be aware of these barriers to girls’ achievements.
Professor Martin has conducted extensive research on the differing motivation and learning challenges faced by both girls and boys in education. His research indicates girls in primary and secondary school show many of the characteristics that predict success.
He says compared with boys, “girls tend to be well organised, to try hard, place high value and importance on school, ask for help when needed, persist in the face of difficulty, and perform better in tasks involving reading and writing”.
This is partly for developmental reasons.
“Girls’ brain development is such that at an earlier age they tend to have good executive functioning that allows them to pay attention in class better and longer, be more organised, and plan things out well.”
However, girls are at risk of choosing subjects based on gender stereotypes, rather than their own talents or interests. This can, for instance, make them less likely to take up subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) even if they are good at and interested in them.
“They can choose school subjects on the basis of what they might see as appropriate for a girl and not what they are good at or interested in.”
“Schools and parents can reinforce those roles," he adds.
“It’s essential that teachers and caregivers challenge these stereotypes, so girls study what they are good at."
Girls also suffer higher anxiety levels and can have a tendency to underestimate their own competence, he says.
"In our research girls’ anxiety scores are consistently more than 10% higher than those of boys. It is important that we deal with anxiety, as it can hold students back from working to their full potential and from enjoying school as much as possible.”
Girls' perception of inadequate competence can make them more likely than boys to dwell on their shortcomings, and less likely to take credit for success, he says.
“Taken far enough, this can lead to what is known as the “imposter syndrome”, a feeling of being secretly inadequate to one’s role, and at constant fear of being found out as mediocre and not up to the high demands of the job. This can follow girls into their adult and professional life."
He says teachers and caregivers must encourage girls to recognise and accept their success, appreciate their competence, and celebrate their strengths.