Gender’s role in morale: an analysis of self-esteem in Upper School students at Hamden Hall Country Day School

How does gender affect internal self-esteem and how it is expressed among high school students?

An issue I see at play in my community is that a lot of times, it seems like young women are much more self-conscious than young men. Girls often apologize when they are outspoken or loud. Some young women apologize when someone else is in the wrong. Do young women and young men feel equally bad about themselves and young men are less vocal about it? Why have girls been conditioned to think so poorly of themselves, and why does this continue today? What would the reaction be if boys were as vocal about low self-esteem as girls?

This project seeks to advance several UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as Goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” and Goal 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” as it relates to mental health and wellbeing. The project intends to help catalyze change by informing high school students about how gender affects self-esteem and calling them to action to make a conscious effort not to promote and to fight against perpetuating a culture in which gender inequality exists in young people’s self-esteem.

Background and Theories

To understand the basis of what may have caused and continues to perpetuate the perceived gap in men’s and women’s self-esteem, we need to understand a few basic theories in gender studies.

The first is gender essentialism, which may be a bit of an outdated and disproven view of gender, which asserts that there are innate biological and psychological differences between males and females which cause differences in behavior between men and women that we see in our daily lives.

Gender essentialism is problematic because it is predicated on the gender binary, which leaves no room for anyone who feels they do not align with the male/female/only two genders belief that has been ingrained in our society.

As well, it ostracizes anyone who identifies as male or female but does not associate or identify with the stereotypical characteristics we as society associate with male and female (another facet of gender essentialism). Where gender essentialism really comes to play in thinking about differences in behavior between men and women is a theoretical extension and redefinition of this concept: gender performativity.

Here is a quick video of Judith Butler, the gender theorist who coined the term “gender performativity,” discussing the concept. For more information, here is a quick overview and a more scholarly reflection.

The basic definition of gender performativity is that you are not born as having a certain gender, but that everything we learn about and come to know as our gender identity has been taught to us by society based on which sex organs we have and comes from gender roles and how society sees gender.

Where gender performativity really comes into play is when we consider how it may affect young men and women on a daily basis. Even if not nearly as much of our gender comes from society as Judith Butler proposed, society definitely has an impact.

Society conditions young women and girls (a lot of times through the media) that they have to live up to certain standards of appearance (i.e. having a certain weight or type of hair) and standards of behavior (being polite, not being too “bossy” or outspoken). Again, these societal norms may be outdated in nature, but they still affect us in our everyday lives.

A quick video from TIME about how gender stereotypes affect kids

A 2017 study from the Journal of Adolescent Health found that gender stereotypes learned as children can have profound and harmful impacts on teenagers that follow them to adulthood. These include but are not limited to:

For teenage girls conforming to gender stereotypes:

  • Depression
  • Child marriage
  • Leaving school early
  • Exposure to violence

And for teenage boys:

  • Engaging in physical violence to a much greater extent than girls
  • Dying more frequently from unintentional injuries
  • Being more prone to substance abuse and suicide
  • Having a shorter life expectancy than women

Now, this is not to say that every teenage boy or girl will find themselves in these situations due to gender norms and stereotypes, but they do have an impact.

A lot of times, detrimental gender norms can lead to a lot of psychological impacts in boys, as well. This is where the concepts of toxic masculinity and hegemonic masculinity come in.

An overview of toxic masculinity. For more in-depth info and research-based explanations click here and for a recent article on the topic from the New York Times click here.

The concept of hegemonic masculinity explains that there are multiple masculinities, and society validates and supports men’s dominant role (in general, over women, and over other forms of masculinity deemed “too feminine” or “not man enough.” This phenomenon leads to a lot of men feeling as if they need to always be emotionless or not express anything that could make them look weak because these attributes are considered more feminine and therefore unacceptable for a man. This article from Durham University in the UK goes more in-depth on hegemonic masculinity and how it relates to (and leads to) toxic masculinity.

What do the studies say?

Older studies (Mcmullin, Julie Ann, and John Cairney; Kling, Kristen C., et al.; Josephs, Robert A., et al.) in general find that males have higher self-esteem than females on average, and that various social and cultural phenomena cause this disparity. However, a newer study (Bleidorn, Wiebke, et al. 2015) asserts that lower self-esteem in women is universal across cultures, and not entirely caused by Western ideals as many previous studies claimed. As well, the studies I reviewed conflict on what time in life this apparent difference in self-esteem between men and women is the largest. Most found that the gap was the worst during adolescents, and that self-esteem grew with age on both sides, but one study found that the lowest self-esteem levels and the highest gap between men and women was in older age.

Most importantly, though, no matter the specific cause or what age it has the most affect, all of these studies found that there is a difference in self-esteem between males and females, which is consistent with gender theories seeking to explain the behaviors we see in society.

Gender and Self-Esteem at Hamden Hall

70 Hamden Hall upper-schoolers took a research survey I created to see if all the theories and students on the self-esteem gap between men and women held true in my school according to my classmates.

More female-identifying students took the survey than male-identifying, which is interesting to note as we continue to review the results of the survey.

Overall, most students said they sometimes felt negatively about themselves, with the second highest percentage category was “often.”

The majority of surveyed students (about 80%) said they hear their peers expressing negative self-esteem always to sometimes, with about 20% saying they rarely and never hear students expressing negative thoughts about themselves.

To compare the two graphs of perceived discussions of negative self-esteem in girls and boys at HH, both girls and boys surveyed mostly said that they always, often, and sometimes heard girls expressing negative self-esteem, while the highest percentage categories when asked about boys expressing negative self-esteem were rarely (at 50%), sometimes, and never. However, I find it interesting that “often” had almost the same percent responses as “never” on this question, which shows that people at my school have very different perceptions of the situation regardless of what it is in reality.

For the rest of the questions, I wanted to get a sense of people’s individual thoughts and feelings.

The first open-ended question asked: “Do you see a divide in how and how often different people express self-esteem and/or negative thoughts about themselves based on their GENDER?”

A few proceeded to explain that they saw no apparent problem or gap in self-esteem between men and women, and for the rest of the survey responded with “I said no” or “there is no divide.” Part of this likely comes from my error in creating the survey in neglecting to include N/A as an option for response or reformatting the questions to incorporate that assertion.

That being said, students had some really interesting things to say.

“I think that girls are a lot more openly negative about themselves. It is like that scene from Mean Girls, when they are in Regina’s room, and the girls all line up in front of the mirror and say bad stuff about themselves, as if it is expected.”

“Girls talk about their insecurities with their looks more often then boys, but it doesn’t mean all boys are completely comfortable in how they look. Girls are just more likely to put these things out in the open, and more likely to commiserate together on ideals they want to achieve.”

“… most of the girls I know aren’t very self-confident, but the boys I know are very self-confident, sometimes even overconfident.”

“I find that girls tend to be more open about their insecurities, whereas boys play it off as a joke or try to hide what they’re insecure about.”

“Yes, I think that the self esteem issues exist across gender, but they seem to be based on different things. I’ve noticed girls having low self esteem on appearance and intelligence, and guys measuring their self worth based on their sexual orientation or sexual habits.”

“I feel like males don’t often express these kind of thoughts because they want to seem “tough” and “confident”. Expressing those kinds of feelings can make them seem less of a “man” and weak. Females on the other hand are more often likely to express those types of feelings to others, because females are expected to care about how they look .”

“It depends on who they’re around. I find that guys don’t tend to act that way around other guys because they don’t want to come off as weak or a sissy.”

Why does this divide exist?

“Girls are basically expected to be insecure about their bodies, while boys are expected to be confident. Boys are also faced with extreme standards sometimes, but because of the expectation of natural confidence, don’t talk about their insecurities.”

“I think girls are, first off, more open about their feelings, since it is considered taboo for boys to talk about how they feel, so if girls feel bad about themselves, they are more likely to express it. Also, I think girls have more self esteem issues in general because they are taught to hate themselves.”

“The divide exists based on gender roles that have existed for centuries. Even though it may not be the case any more, women were taught that above all, they should be pretty and this negatively affects how women view themselves because they feel the need to conform to a man’s idea of physical beauty, which they may or may not fit.”

“Girls are expected to live up to societal standards that impede on self-confidence, and these expectations hit us the hardest in high school.”

“Toxic masculinity is huge in society today, and since it’s so common and has been for so long it’s almost ingrained in boys that they shouldn’t show emotions like insecurity.”

“Different life experiences may cause some people to have or to express more often their low self-esteem. Society perpetuates unrealistic body standards for people, especially for those who identify as female, which contributes to many people’s low self-esteem. The lack of represention for all minority groups in the media also contributes to many people’s self hate. Overall, I think people who identify as female are more expected to expected to deflect compliments or criticize their own appearance because they are considered selfish if they do not.”

“I think it stems from traditional gender roles of women being expected to look good for their husband and the urge to prove themselves because they historically haven’t been seen as intelligent in America. For men, I think the social stigma is due to sexuality and emotional suppression- I’ve seen guys make fun of other guys for being sweet to their girlfriends or admitting to something remotely emotional which makes them “gay”. And also I know a couple of guys at school where they seem to base their self worth on sex and put other people down for having less or more.”

A short reflection:

It was really interesting for me to see what other students at my school thought about this problem. While a few respondents were completely apathetic, mostly I got really informative responses from people who cared about the issue and about creating change in our community. What complicated by understanding of the topic because I see a gap in self-esteem (both internalized and expression) between young men and women was that a small group of people really didn’t see a gap or an issue at all. From this, I’m left with questions of how different people see (or don’t see) things going on in our communities and our society and how seeing issues going on around us or not seeing them and/or feeling they’re there can lead to whether or not people take action or want to create change. This experience reminded me that we always need to be kind to people because we never truly know what’s going on inside their heads and if they’re going through a hard time. Furthermore, my understanding that we all need to stand up against micro-aggressions and instances of prejudice in our society so we can help stop these problems from growing and continuing.

Clearly there’s a problem. So, what do we do?

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is an organization promoting action against the perpetuation of harmful gender norms and sexism. The #StandUptoSexism campaign has some really interesting ideas for actions you can take to combat the effects of gender stereotypes and and societal norms and expectations of gender.

Use social media: You can post on the forms of social media you most like to use with how you #StandUptoSexism

My suggestion if you’re not so keen on hashtags or already established campaigns is to speak out if you hear/see someone on social media and in person berating someone else (or otherwise being mean) for not subscribing to gender norms. Also, commit yourself to helping people who express negative self-esteem to you. If your friend comments on a picture of him/her that they look terrible or “this” or “that” is not right, assure them that they are beautiful however they are, however cheesy or “cringey” it may sound. The more you tell yourself something, the more you start to believe it.

Also, remember to recognize your own bias and snap judgments. If you find yourself thinking something negatively about someone for not conforming to a certain norm or really for anything else, recognize the stereotype or judgement, acknowledge it, and commit to not doing it again. Slowly, we can un-train ourselves of habits of judging others for not fitting a certain mold just as we judge ourselves.

Take the survey for yourself!

Link to works cited:

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  1. April 26, 2019 by Kim Porto

    This presentation contained so much good data.I find it so interesting that so many females answered your survey when there are more males in our school. Thank you for all this helpful information.

    • April 27, 2019 by Alli Fischman

      Thanks, Mrs. Porto. I find it interesting, too, that more female students answered while there are many more male students in our school. Perhaps some boys didn’t want to delve into this issue because they don’t see a problem or because it’s not something they want to talk about. It would be fascinating to talk to some male students in person to get their take.

  2. April 26, 2019 by Melissa Hudson

    This was a very interesting subject and presentation, Alli. Thank you for sharing your project!

    Mrs. Hudson

    • April 27, 2019 by Alli Fischman

      Thank you for the comment, Mrs. Hudson!

  3. April 27, 2019 by Tom Iampietro

    This is extraordinary and I wish every instructor/administrator at HH would read it and absorb its message. While perhaps a bit too passionate for some, it carries some fascinating questions and is full of insight. Brava! VERY well done, my friend!!!

    • April 27, 2019 by Alli Fischman

      “Too passionate” haha, well you know me! Thank you!

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