Girls match boys in confidence at single-sex schools, study finds
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Girls match boys in confidence at single-sex schools, study finds

Girls' confidence tends to fall below boys' from about the age of nine, and the gap doesn't close until they are elderly. But ground-breaking Australian research has found one group bucking that trend - girls at single-sex schools.

A study involving 10,000 students found no significant differences in self-confidence between girls and boys in gender-segregated high schools.

Girls are as confident as boys in single-sex schooling environments, a study has found.

Girls are as confident as boys in single-sex schooling environments, a study has found.Credit:Michelle Mossop

"The study is important because it shows [the confidence gap] is not innate; it does not have to be this way," said lead author Terry Fitzsimmons from the AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace at the University of Queensland.

Prior studies in mixed-sex environments have shown the confidence gap begins early. One literature review quoted in the study found girls' confidence began to fall below boys' at age nine, and remained lower until they turned 80.

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"What this [study] goes to show, really importantly, is that there is an environment in which whatever is driving that [difference in] confidence between adolescent boys and girls is not happening," Dr Fitzsimmons said.

"We think it's the first study of its kind to establish a set of criteria where that [gap] doesn't hold."

Dr Fitzsimmons' study was commissioned by the Australian Gender Equality Council, which represents several women's industry groups as well as the Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia, which put the researchers in touch with its member schools.

It builds on Dr Fitzsimmons' earlier research into whether confidence issues influenced the number of women holding senior positions in business.

"There is no evidence whatsoever to support that there's a biological difference [in confidence]," he said. "A lot of this stuff we are dealing with in the workplace relates back to socialisation at home and at school."

Dr Fitzsimmons' team surveyed the students at top-performing boys' and girls' schools in Queensland. They answered about 300 questions under test conditions.

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The results showed there was no difference between social self-efficacy (belief in ability to succeed in social engagements) between the boys and girls, and only a small difference in self-efficacy (belief in ability to succeed in certain situations) in year 10, which was corrected in year 11.

In terms of overall self-confidence, there was no difference between boys and girls. But the confidence level of both declined as the students got older.

Dr Fitzimmons said one of the key factors protecting the self-confidence of girls at single-sex schools was likely to be watching other girls and women in leadership positions. "There's no hint that there's an issue around gender," he said.

"I'm not for a single second advocating single-sex education. My thrust was to simply say that ...  the lack of self-efficacy can be driven by the belief that certain roles are undertaken by men.

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"When those [perceptions] are established, they become really hard to break. If we are looking at breaking the cycle, then employers are facing an uphill battle."

Girls did report less awareness of their parents' jobs than boys. In year 7, 15 per cent could not name their mother or father's occupations, while only six per cent of boys could not name their father's occupation.

The students also had fixed, "highly gendered" ideas of the general direction of their career - for example, science and maths or humanities - by the time they began year seven, and these remained fixed through to year 11.

Loren Bridge, the executive officer of The Alliance of Girls Schools' Australasia and a director of the Australian Gender Equality Council, said girls' schools worked hard to negate the effects of gender stereotypes.

"It comes back to the notion that women in the workplace need to be 'fixed' because their confidence levels are lacking," she said. "Maybe it's the environment that needs to be fixed."

Continue the conversation at our SMH Student Facebook group.

Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald

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