“The Confidence Gap,” “9 Qualities of Confident Women,” and “5 Ways Women can Exude Confidence at Work” represent just a small sampling of recent articles that explore how women perceive themselves relative to their actual competence. While self-confidence has often been an issue for women, the subject has become increasingly topical of late. Much of the recent rhetoric in this vein has focused on professional-age females, almost ignoring that confidence (or lack thereof) is something learned when we’re children. And so we’re compelled as educators and parents to wonder, what strategies can we implement at home and at school to ensure that our girls are growing up both competent and confident?

Our Role as Parents and Educators

As parents, and as educators, we want our girls — and our boys — to develop intellectually, and also socially. We want to educate them not just to be scholars, but also to be engaged leaders in their communities. We want to provide them with the tools to be lifelong learners and problem solvers.

Ensuring that girls feel confident about themselves and their future includes considering the messages we send through what we say and how we act. As adults, we often function in our daily lives unaware of the cultural biases in the language we use, for example. Over time, girls internalize the messages we send, and that can have immediate and lasting influence. Sitting at the dinner table, Dad might ask, “Joe, have you thought about joining the investment club?” He unintentionally neglects to ask the same question of Joe’s sister, Jane. This example demonstrates how girls develop implicit attitudes, a concept popularized by social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University.

Banaji’s focus is primarily on attitudes that are implicit or unconscious. Thus, in the example above, by only asking Joe about the investment club, the father is saying (and Jane is hearing), “The investment club is not for girls.” The result is the formation of an implicit attitude that girls are not associated with investing and finance. If I had a nickel for every time this scenario played out at my own dinner table growing up (with the well-intentioned males in my family), I’d sure have a lot of nickels.

In all seriousness, while my example demonstrates how an implicit attitude can develop around a specific subject matter, our daily actions also contribute to the formation of implicit attitudes. Thus, it’s crucial that we are aware of how we conduct ourselves around our children. For girls, this concept is particularly transferable to what we eat in front of them, how we talk about beauty and self-image, and how we dress. What we do and say is constantly watched, and so we must model the behavior we hope our own girls will exhibit as they mature into adults.

STEM for Girls

You’ve probably read that our nation is dropping farther and farther behind global competitors, particularly as it relates to education in the sciences. Yet, jobs within these areas offer the highest wage potential for both sexes and exhibit virtually no gender wage gap. While women comprise 58 percent of the overall workforce, they hover below 20 percent in most science and engineering occupations.

This raises the question, what can schools do to engage girls’ interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)? Research says that girls learn best through collaboration, communication, humanitarian efforts, and real-life examples. Responding to the problem of dwindling supply of graduates for an increasing supply of future jobs, we can take what we know about how girls learn, and create environments in which they can thrive.

Capitalizing on girls’ drive to help others, schools can specifically aim to make their work come alive. Here at DCD, girls learn engineering through the process of designing a complex machine that will ultimately have a real-life application. While girls initially work individually, they are encouraged to help classmates through challenges. This fosters collaboration and problem solving. They also share their machines with their Kindergarten buddies. Bringing this project to life and promoting collaboration immerses them in the subject matter and leverages their strength as hands-on learners.

Leadership in Everyday Life

In the digital age, educating girls is not solely about academic content taught in the classroom. Soft skills, like leadership, can be taught as part of everyday life. At DCD, through daily sports participation girls learn important social behavior, such as character development, teamwork, and resilience. Leadership opportunities also occur at other times during the school day. One example is as simple as saying to a group of friends during recess, “Hey girls, Mary is sitting alone on the playground. Let’s go sit with her today.”

Leadership doesn’t always mean that a student has to be on the student council or be a team captain. The Girls Leadership Institute, co-founded by author and educator Rachel Simmons, emphasizes that decisions like what to wear and how to carry oneself are all opportunities for girls to lead. Yet leadership also happens when girls respond appropriately to text messages, make good decisions under peer pressure, and take action to defend a friend who’s been bullied. When girls develop leadership skills in these seemingly minor ways, they build the foundation they’ll need to advocate for themselves and for others.

Consider again the media focus on women’s confidence. For girls to build self-esteem and become successful in whatever their pursuits might be, they need encouragement, guidance, and support. Most girls have no sense of what their future might look like until someone says, “You know what? YOU can do this.” A school culture that exhibits the right balance of inspiration, support, growth, and rigor can expand the idea of what’s possible — for both boys and girls. This is the environment that DCD creates for our students. When every student graduates, she — or he — has developed her own authentic voice and is armed with the skills to speak proudly and to thrive in life beyond our campus.

This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the DCD Bulletin.