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Single-sex schooling cultivates confidence in girls [Commentary]

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In their new book, "The Confidence Code," Claire Shipman and Katty Kay draw on a broad spectrum of scientific research to support several of their hypotheses: Compared with men, women don't consider themselves as ready for promotions; predict they will do worse on tests than they actually do; and generally underestimate their abilities.

In other words, men tend to say "I can," while women tend to say "I can't."

These attitudes develop long before adulthood, however, often on the playgrounds and in classrooms, where perceived inadequacies chip away at girls' confidence levels. This happens even when all evidence suggests otherwise. Everyone — teachers, parents, mentors and friends — needs to encourage girls to take academic risks, dare to be wrong, speak up even when unsure, try new things and pursue harder challenges. By pushing through what may feel uncomfortable, girls and women begin to experience the benefits of risk taking and grow more confident as a result. Everybody wins then, both the women who are free to explore their ideas and the world that benefits from them.

For many, it's a fear of failure that gets in the way. One educational expert called this the "Tyranny of Perfection." It's a confidence destroyer. Women tend to apply for a promotion only when they believe they've met 100 percent of the listed qualifications. Men apply when they've met 60 percent. And when a girl is asked "What do you charge?" for a provided service they too often respond "What do you want to pay me?" Until girls and women value their work and worth they will find it harder to ask for a raise.

An all-girls experience, be it the Girl Scouts, a girls' athletic team, a girls' camp or a girls' school can be a spring board to achievement and a sense of self-worth. Recently NPR's Diane Rheim brought Ms. Shipman and Ms. Kay onto her show. Two of her callers mentioned their experiences at a girls' school. Both stated they never questioned their competence and confidence. For them it wasn't equal opportunity but every opportunity. All the leaders, team captains, editors, actors and class officers were female. Taking action is expected. And according to Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, "Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action."

Baltimore is blessed with a significant number of girls' public and private schools. This is cause for celebration. The other good news is the emergence of additional all-girls public schools both in our city and across the country. In 1991 there were only two girls' public schools left in the United States, one being our own Western High School. Since then more than 500 new ones have opened with most of them serving inner city girls. Offering the single-sex school option to a broader base of our nations' young women increases the likelihood of competent and confident future leaders.

Recently, Linda Sax, an associate professor at UCLA, conducted a study that demonstrated how, after entering college, graduates of girls' public, parochial and private schools rate their confidence levels in math and computer skills 10 percent higher than their co-ed counterparts. And 81 percent of girls' school graduates rate themselves in the "highest 10 percent " for academic ability versus 75 percent of coed grads. Roughly 60 percent of the girls' school graduates also consider themselves in the "highest 10 percent" in regard to intellectual self-confidence.

In her book "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling," Rosemary Salomone of St. John's University said "all-girls settings seem to provide girls a comfort level that helps them develop greater self-confidence and broader interests, especially as they approach adolescence."

The cultures within our local girls' schools foster a level of confidence that lingers long past graduation. Nothing says it better than the Garrison Forest School motto, Esse Quam Videri — To Be Rather than To Seem.

Whitney "Whitty" Ransome is co-founder of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools and co-founder of The James Center at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills. Her email is whitneyransome@gfs.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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