I spent the first half of my career, secretly afraid that I would get fired

“Imposter syndrome” is not a new story. Much has been written about the relatively common experience among women of feeling like a fraud, but I didn’t know that in my 20’s and 30’s. Receiving regular praise, positive performance evaluations and increasing responsibility did nothing to allay my fear that I was not good enough. I lived with a feeling of dread and inevitability, that my beloved work life would come crashing down around me. Although it’s embarrassing to admit it now, it’s especially important to share since so many women feel alone in having a profound lack of confidence. Plus, I have a 12 year-old daughter…
I’m grateful to our grantees and nonprofit partners like Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX) focused on building strength and resiliency in girls. I was primed to be interested when ROX released The Girls’ Index, a national survey, asking more than 10,000 girls about their experiences and perceptions.

I opened the executive summary of The Girls’ Index, and this leapt out at me:
46% of high school girls do not think they are smart enough
for their dream career.

And, next to it, in case the reader was tempted to interpret this profound self-doubt as a reflection of ability was this:

1 in 3 girls with a grade point average of 4.0 or greater
do not think they are smart enough for their dream career.

These statistics raise the question: What is going on with girls!?!?
I want to share some of the other findings that struck me from this research, and to encourage you to take a look at the full report yourself:

  • Many girls report alarmingly high levels of stress: concerns about their appearance, their grades, pressure from parents and from peers. When they get overwhelmed and emotions spill out, parents and teachers often label it “drama,” leaving girls feeling dismissed. It’s no wonder that many choose to hide behind the appearance of perfection and keep their worries to themselves.
  • Social media is an ever-present fact of life for girls and is an experience that few parents are at all prepared to understand or help them navigate. Social media is a way to connect, but it’s also carefully curated to get approval from others. “Likes” have become a form of emotional currency, creating an ever changing scorecard of social validation or of rejection. Most of us have felt the sharp pain of rejection, and we need to help girls practice putting things into perspective, take breaks from social media, and encourage more face-to-face time with peers and in structured activities like sports or clubs. We also need to equip girls to understand the impact of their own online behavior on other girls.
  • Only 20% of high school girls say that boys their age are respectful of girls. Half of girls have been asked to send a sexually explicit photo before 9th grade. And 75% of high school girls say that most students send and receive sexually explicit photos. As a parent, this frightens me. But it’s not helpful to shame girls or to make blanket pronouncements forbidding it. They need our help in thinking through different ways to get out of a pressured situation. It can be as simple as: “Nope, but here’s a cute picture of my dog!” Having something specific to say, even if it’s silly, can help girls refuse rather than comply

The report also highlighted areas of strength and resilience for girls:

  • Friendships with other girls matter a lot. Girls who have supportive friends that they can talk to about serious issues are less likely to report sadness and depression. But friendships are hard and complicated, and many girls don’t have skills for navigating conflict. It’s important for adults to help girls think through how to express anger or hurt feelings constructively, and how to apologize and recover when they make a misstep that causes pain to someone they care about.
  • The majority of girls say they like to be in charge. But some girls hold back for fear of being called bossy. And almost half (46%) of girls admit that they don’t say what they are really thinking because they want to be liked. We’re far more practiced at encouraging boys to take risks of all kinds, and to be matter of fact about failures.

It’s important to create opportunities to praise girls for courage, not perfection. And, as parents and mentors, it helps girls when we can normalize the challenges of growing up and to remind them of the traits we appreciate and admire in them that have nothing to do with appearances. We can help our girls find their way out of imposter syndrome by practicing connection, reflecting their strengths back to them, and helping them to learn the skills necessary to navigate relationships.

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