Reuters Health

Media Exaggerates Girls' Low Self-Esteem

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

NEW YORK -- Reports in the popular press of low self-esteem among adolescent girls are greatly exaggerated, according to an analysis involving over 150,000 individuals.

"Males score higher on standard measures of global self-esteem than females, but the difference is small," report Kristen Kling and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their findings are reported in the August issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Books such as Mary Pipher's bestselling "Reviving Ophelia" and numerous media reports have hyped the notion that boys and girls remain equally self-confident until adolescence, at which point girls enter a self-esteem 'slump' from which many never fully recover. Various experts have blamed this confidence 'gender gap' on pervasive sexist attitudes that exist in modern society.

But just how wide is this gap? To help answer that question, Kling and colleagues analyzed data from 216 studies involving nearly 150,000 children and adults.

They report that "the overall effect size was small." The difference between women and men in terms of reported self-esteem was just 0.21. This gap peaked at 0.33 in late adolescence, but tended to subside with age.

"The small size of the gender difference suggests that males and females are more similar than they are different when it comes to measures of self-esteem," concluded Kling in a University of Wisconsin statement.

According to the researchers, the popular notion of girls as 'victims' with low self-worth may become a "self-fulfilling prophecy" in some cases. "If girls internalize this message," the authors explain, "they may behave in ways that contribute to this perception... initiating a cycle of lowered expectations in others that are then met by diminished effort on the part of girls."

Society's recent focus on the self-confidence of girls "may have been at the cost of boys," as well, the authors write. "The perception that males have much higher self-esteem than girls implies that boys do not have self-esteem problems," the Wisconsin team explains. They point out that boys face their own gender-based stressors, including pressures to appear masculine and excel in 'male' fields such as athletic performance.

Kling and her colleagues do not discount the very real sexist pressures encountered by girls and women in today's world. However, they believe that many girls develop specific coping mechanisms -- strategies that render them more resilient to sexist attitudes than is commonly assumed.

Though this report "does not close the book on the issue," the investigators add, they believe their findings provide "an important alternative to the prevailing view in the popular media that girls and women are passive victims with poor self-esteem."

SOURCE: Psychological Bulletin 1999;125:470-500.