January 2021

A Crisis of Confidence

By Lisa Hinkelman, Ph.D.

What 10,678 Girls Think About Themselves, Their Abilities and Their Opportunities


What do girls need to be successful? When I posed this question to parents, educators and school counselors, I heard many different responses: Grit, education, intelligence, stability, opportunity, caring adults, determination – but more than anything else, I heard the word “confidence.” When I asked more than 10,000 girls the same question in the national research survey, The Girls’ Index, the word that they cited most frequently was also “confidence.”

Confidence is a central tenet of decision making. Individuals who are confident make more sound decisions in nearly every aspect of their lives – from relationships, to academics, to careers. A confident person is less likely to stay in an unhealthy dating relationship. They are more likely to challenge themselves with rigorous coursework. They can more easily envision themselves occupying a leadership role or a prestigious occupation.

The Girls’ Index research also showed that confidence is an area where girls struggle tremendously. Between fifth and ninth grade, girls’ confidence declines sharply and does not return to pre-middle school levels. During this same time, the percentage of girls who do not think they are smart enough for their dream job doubles from 23 percent to 46 percent. Think about that for a moment. By the time girls are in high school, nearly half of them are questioning their abilities and their opportunities.

Unfortunately, intelligence and achievement do not fend off confidence challenges. In fact, among girls with grade point averages of 4.0 or higher, 30 percent don’t think they are smart enough for their dream job. Regardless of girls’ actual abilities, they don’t necessarily see their own potential or performance. Girls prove themselves to be highly capable and competent, yet despite their achievements, they continually disregard their abilities and downplay their intelligence. Girls are more likely than boys to believe that certain careers are out of their reach and that sharing their opinions will mean that others won’t like them.

We are missing out on the voices, opinions and contributions of girls, not because they don’t have anything to share, but because they are continually questioning themselves and their abilities. For girls, it is not their competence that is lacking; rather, it is their confidence.

With confidence so central to success, we must create intentional and systematic opportunities to build girls’ confidence. In the same way that we help girls with study skills, stress management, college applications and coping skills, we must help them build their belief in their own skills and abilities. This is not something that we should think of as “nice to do if we can find the time” – it should be prioritized as something that is critical to successful student outcomes.

We create opportunities for girls to build their confidence by ensuring they have experiences that allow them to try new things, bolster their efficacy and overcome challenges. We should provide them with safe environments to take risks, use their voice, share their opinions and experience themselves being successful. We can reinforce their efforts and support their growth by giving them targeted and substantive feedback, not by simply complimenting them.

Compliments do not build confidence. Compliments are fleeting comments that do little to substantively mold and shape core behaviors or skills. Girls tend to receive many more compliments than boys do, with the majority focused on beauty and outward appearances. We can easily over-rely on the impact of compliments as a mechanism for building confidence and innocently comment on clothing, weight or hairstyle in an effort to bolster self-perception. Although hearing compliments feels nice, we must ensure that we do not misattribute the value of a compliment as a building block toward confidence.

As school counselors, our responsibilities are vast and varied. We are charged with supporting the social/emotional needs of students, advocating for social justice and positioning our students for the best postsecondary options. How we interact with and educate girls now will determine who and what they become in the future. Our investment will dictate whether or not girls see themselves as capable, whether or not they speak their mind and share their opinion, whether or not they reach for the opportunity that seems like a big stretch and whether or not they strive for that leadership role. We have the chance to change the trajectory of girls’ lives by instilling confidence, cultivating leadership and supporting risk-taking.

To develop a deeper understanding of your school’s girls, you can apply to participate in the next iteration of The Girls’ Index survey. This underwritten project provides participant schools with custom data collection and analysis, including a summary report and recommendations and strategies on how to support girls' social/emotional learning needs.

Lisa Hinkelman, Ph.D. is a counselor, educator, researcher, author and is the founder of Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), the national nonprofit leader in programming, research and education focused on girls. She is the author of the new book “Girls Without Limits: Helping Girls Achieve Success in Relationships, Academics, Careers and Life (2nd edition), Corwin Press, and is the principal researcher of The Girls’ Index: New Insights into the Complex World of Today’s Girls. Contact her at research@rulingourexperiences.com.