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A query into the relationship between gender and self esteem in adolescent females

A Query into the Relationship between Gender and Self Esteem in Adolescent Females

Self-esteem is defined as the way in which a person views their performance in areas principal to them personally, and the way they believe others of significance perceive them. Those who suffer from a deficiency of self-esteem have a heightened susceptibility to experiencing depression, becoming involved in drug use or other precarious behaviors; they may suffer from insomnia due to anxiety and are more likely. To show prejudice and disparage others. Abraham Maslow, creator of the hierarchy of needs, recognized the importance of self-esteem when he included it as the last necessary level one must fulfill before one can be actualized. Psychodynamic psychologist Alfred Adler once said that the "Supreme Law" of life should be that "the sense of worth of the self shall not be allowed to be diminished." Despite the

importance of having high self-esteem, far too many adolescent girls are allowed to fall through the cracks and suffer from the diminished senses of self at ever increasing ages.

Why do girls experience more pronounced problems with self-esteem than their male counterparts and what has caused this gender gap to emerge in a supposed society of equality?

Kennon M. Sheldon Ph.D of the University of Missouri-Columbia states in a report issued in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that once identified,

"psychological needs can be targeted to enhance personal thriving, in the same way that the organic needs of a plant, once identified, can be targeted to maximize thriving in the

plant." According to the study, self-esteem is the most fundamental psychological need

of American college students. Participants were asked to identify most satisfying and

unsatisfying events in their life at different time intervals. The most unsatisfying events lacked the top four qualities associated with psychological well being. In all three

United States samples self-esteem topped the list with autonomy, self-endorsed competence and relatedness following behind. Ranking at the bottom of the list were popularity, wealth and luxury.

The magnitude of self-esteem relates not only to the mental and psychological well being of an individual, but also in her health and behavior. The National

Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, states that teenagers are less likely to engage in risky behaviors if they possess a high sense of self-esteem. Factors such as diet and nutrition, sexual behavior, family relationships, use of health services, violence, and substance abuse were observed to determine the frequency of occurrence and potential explanations. Researchers found that if a teenager felt close to her parents, worked a job less than twenty hours per week and placed a strong emphasis on religion and prayer, she was less likely to involve herself in behaviors which are objectionable and more likely to view themselves positively.

Building self-esteem starts from birth. The way parents treat a child, as well as the environment and their behavior around the child are decisive factors in determining how children will come to view themselves. A solid foundation of self-esteem stems from a sense of connectedness to others, balanced with a strong sense of self-separate from

others. If a child is raised in a family where there is not enough money to insure

basic living standards, not only will she be deprived, but she may also come to view

herself as a burden. These children face other obstacles that those born into financially secure families do not. Even though parents may devote the majority of their time and efforts to providing for a child, the child may still miss out on valuable time with her parents. The lack of this bond with parents and security may lead to increased anxiety in a young child unsure of where the next meal is coming from. There is also a social stigma related to having less money than others have; they may come to feel that they are inadequate as people because of their family’s status; they may believe that they were born to fail.

Parents may often unintentionally undermine their children’s sense of self

through dominance, indifference and lack of respect. The way in which one is punished can have a profound effect on how one begins to view herself. Psychologist Carl Rogers theorized that children, as well as all people should be treated with Unconditional Positive Regard, meaning that despite their actions they should be shown that they are valued and cared for. When a child is viewed with Conditional Positive Regard, they may get the notion that their behavior determines their significance as a person; if they behave well and achieve success they are a good person worthy of love and adoration, if they behave badly or fail at a task they are a bad person and consequently unworthy of love (Rogers, 1980).

If young children are subjected to the same issues and difficulties, why then do girls experience more self-esteem related issues than boys? Some believe that it begins

with an adolescent’s search for identity. Erik Erickson defined stages of psychosocial development for life, and in these stages he proposed that during adolescence people try

to distance themselves from the views and beliefs of their parents as they begin to form their own.

Gender differences surface early in a child’s development. during playtime boys typically play in large groups with a focused activity and very little intimate discussion.

Girls, however, tend to play more often with one close friend or in a small group. Their play is less competitive, with the main focus being the formation of intimate social relationships. The "normal" struggle to create one’s separate identity describes individualist males more than relationship oriented females (Gilligan, 1982,1990).

Many females not only experience feelings of diminished self worth, but also diminished feelings of their gender. These feelings often come from social stereotypes of women to young girls. Boys are often portrayed as being clever, brave, creative and resourceful, whereas girls are depicted as being kind, dependent and docile (Pipher, 63).

While these characteristic differences in themselves do no harm, the values placed on them do. Characteristics typically viewed as male are more dominant and often necessary for success. The more female characteristics imply that women are followers rather than leaders and often dependent on their male counterparts.

All children need and desire strong gender role models, which for girls can be lacking. Children spend almost a third of their days in school and therefore schools

should be a source of positive role models for both girls and boys, however, only one-seventh of illustrations in textbooks are of girls and there are three time as many boy-

centered stories as girl centered (Pipher, 63). Too often girls get the message that

they are not as important as boys are and they begin to fulfill that image. In classes boys

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are twice as likely to be seen as role models, five times as likely to receive the attention of the teacher and twelve times as likely to speak up in class. Academically talented girls are the ones who suffer the most through adolescence. Researcher Lois Murphy found that once girls began the process of "feminization" their IQ points and score on standardized academic tests began to drop. A girl’s success is often attributed to good luck and hard work. When a girl fails it is attributed to a lack of ability and with every failure young girls’ confidence levels become increasingly eroded. Particularly in the areas of math and science girls tend to exhibit self-handicapping behavior; they deliberately sabotage their own performance either due to fear of embarrassment and failure, or by playing into their own misconception that they are not good enough to succeed. When girls encounter academic difficulties, especially in math, they tend to think that they are stupid and give up. Girls are also often guilty of practicing self-monitoring, wherein they regulate their behavior to meet social demands or to create a desired social impression (Snyder, 1987). While this may be viewed as a positive aspect of behavior, it can cause girls to deny their true feelings and behave differently than they would without social demands. Peers become and increasing source of social support and this leads to an increase in anxiety of being rejected. Arising from this is often a conformity to peer values and behaviors, or peer pressure (Brown, 1989).

The dramatic details of the report commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) entitled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America

revitalized research on gender differences in America’s school systems. This study marked the beginning of understanding of relationships in adolescence between self-image and career; differences in that relationship due to gender, and the impact of math and science. The study found that in elementary school sixty-seven percent of boys and sixty percent of girls were happy with who they were. Over the next eight years boy’s appreciation of who they were declines to forty-six percent and girls to twenty-nine percent. Both males and females view changes in males during adolescence as positive; however girls view their own changes as negative. The study contradicts the thoughts that peer acceptance is the most pivotal determination of self-worth for adolescents. Respondents ranked "fitting in" socially behind academic confidence and feelings of importance within their families.

The motivation of male students to be active in the classroom and their readiness to defend their views puts them at a competitive edge over girls not only in school but also in the job market. Males start out at a higher level than females in the way of career aspirations and are more likely to achieve their goals. Generally, in the classroom males are more active and females are more passive. Males demand the attention of their teacher, and when this attention is received, they come to expect it in everyday life. Similarly, females, who tend to remain more reserved, when denied attention become less likely to attempt to acquire it. This discrepancy continues after school and into the workplace. Males strive for praise and acceptance through their performance and new ideas while many females conform to the social standard with limited hopes of achievement.

Without positive female role models girls are more likely to conform to social standards than boys of the same age are. Of the thirty-six thousand students across Minnesota who were surveyed by the Minnesota Women’s Fun, three times as many of the girls had a negative body image. These girls also reported that they had felt bad about themselves and believed others felt bad about them as well. Having a negative body image is one of the factors which contributes to eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, depression and suicide.

Negative body images are most often associated with the media’s portrayal of female perfection in such instances as Barbie dolls and waif-like supermodels. The diet industry in America brings in almost two billion dollars each and every year and therefore can afford to spend on advertising for their weight-loss programs. Females are more open and responsive to criticisms than males are (Maccoby, 1990;Roberts, 1991), and may therefore buy into these stereotypes more easily. To achieve misperceived perfection adolescent females may develop serious eating disorders. During puberty the body goes through many changes, and in girls the changes in their physical appearance may become overwhelming. It is difficult to come to terms with oneself when one is constantly in limbo, and this can be especially difficult when a girl’s body begins to grow against the ideal.

Before eleven years of age males and females are treated for equal rates of depressive disorders. Between the ages of eleven and fifteen girls rates rise steeply compared to boys slightly marginal increase. By age eighteen girls have twice the

occurrence of depression as do males. This discrepancy between girls and boys depression rates is attributed to girl’s tendency to worry. Through a survey of six hundred and fifteen sixth, eighth and tenth graders in the San Francisco Bay area, researchers found that girls worry more over issues of appearance, friends, personal problems, romantic relationships, family problems, what kind of person they are, how others perceive them and their safety. The only issue which boys were more concerned with was sports (APA Journal).

On the opposite end of the spectrum researchers warn that one must not get too caught up with the hype associated with the self-esteem movement. Many unproven psychological theories from the 1960’s and 1970’s have resurfaced in modern times and mainstream popular culture. Traditional American child rearing in individual responsibility and accountability has been replaced by the need to make sure a child has high self-esteem, which tells parents and educators that their primary duty is to make sure that a child feels good about herself. Bullies, hit men, genocidal maniacs, gang leaders and violent children often have high self-esteem. Children today are imbued with a strong sense of "victimology", or the "American way of blame" in the same way that many children with behavior problems are diagnosed with having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Not to deny that low self-esteem or Attention Deficit Disorder are problems faced by many children and adolescents, but too often these!

labels are placed on people who do not actually suffer from these disorders. Sometimes it is just easier to lay blame on a disorder rather than to work to solve a problem. It is necessary to teach children warranted self-esteem and realistic optimism, based on skills of doing well in the world,

doing well with others and personal responsibility (APA Monitor).

"Too often in psychology, the emphasis is on the individual, without taking into consideration the context in which the adolescent lives-the family context, the neighborhood context, social and peer context"-James Jaccard Ph.D, University of Albany. Most of the research on self-esteem has been done either on the general population of adolescents or on individuals themselves. The background research statistics on studies are just as important as the actual studies themselves. Reasonably there may have been other issues involved in the discrepancy between male and female rates of self-esteem and its effects, for instance it may be possible that testosterone, the male hormone, causes boys to be more confident of themselves and regardless of the attention they receive they would continue to behave the same way.

Research into self-esteem has focused almost entirely on the gender gap, overlooking possible cultural and environmental differences that could become subcategories of the disparity. The only study that even attempts to delve into the web of cultural differences is AAUW’s Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America. The study found that African-American females are more likely to come out of adolescence with a strong sense of self often due to a strong-rooted feeling of self from the family. African-American females are twice as likely to be happy with themselves than Caucasian or Latin females and report confidence levels almost equal to those of Caucasian males. Latin females suffer the most profoundly as family disappears as a source of positive self-worth and academic confidence. Urban Latin females also have a higher frequency of dropping out of school more than any other cultural or gender group.

Notwithstanding the possible biases or neglect of surveys and studies and possible margins of error, research has shown overwhelming statistics in the way of how adolescent girls view themselves. Self-esteem can be seen as at least one of the causes of the high rates of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and depression in girls and can explain why so many young girls believe that they are inferior, incompetent and worthy of shame rather than praise. Explanations can also be seen as to why women have not yet been able to fully thrust themselves through the proverbial glass ceilings of corporate America. There are always exceptions to the rule of course. Since these studies were published, many more women have pulled themselves into the way of intense success and lived to become role models for future generations. Cliched waif-like models, poster children for Anorexia Nervosa, are being replaced by healthier standards and those still representing the former ideals are ridiculed by many. Awareness has brought about slow but much needed change.


Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia-Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. G.P. Putnams’s Sons: New York, New York, 1994

Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America: American Association of University Women, 1992

What Makes People the Happiest? APA News Release:

The American Way of Blame. APA News Release:

Diet, Nutrition and Sex: New Teen Data Have it All.APA News Release:

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