A generation of Britain's best and brightest young women is being held back from fulfilling its potential to produce future leaders, entrepreneurs and trendsetters because of insecurity and relentless societal pressure for girls to strive for physical perfection.
According to research published today, Britain could lose some 319,000 future businesswomen, lawyers and doctors, as well as more than 60 women MPs by 2050 unless young women can be helped to retain confidence in their own abilities.
The study, by the Future Foundation think tank, illustrates how one in four girls (24 per cent) has low self-esteem, buckling under pressure to conform to an idealised notion of how she should look.
The knock-on effect – a loss of future potential – could reduce the chances of another female prime minister being elected by 2050 from 73 per cent to 62 per cent. It would mean two fewer female chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. When it comes to sporting achievement, Britain could see 16 female medallists at the 2024 Olympics rather than the 19 that could be achieved – the legacy of 14 per cent of girls not having the confidence to pursue elite sport.
The predictions are based on face-to-face interviews with 500 girls between 11 and 17 from across Britain, the results of which were mapped on to forecasts of future employment.
Negative comments about their appearance from other girls are one of the biggest factors making girls feel less confident (45 per cent). And low self-esteem damages their prospects, with only one in three confident that she will have a successful career.
Unhappiness with their appearance is a key factor, according to researchers. More than half of the girls studied (52 per cent) said they would be happier if they were more beautiful, according to the study, commissioned by a cosmetics firm as part of its programme to boost self-esteem.
Some 800,000 children have already had self-esteem classes, and the company is working with the eating-disorder charity Beat to provide more than 1,400 classes this year.
William Nelson, director of research at The Future Foundation, said: "Even among high-achieving girls, those with lower self-esteem were significantly less likely to be aimed for 'high profile' careers in future." He added: "In every profession we looked at, we predict decent growth in the presence of women in coming decades – but numbers of women will not grow as strongly as they could if lowered self-esteem among girls and young women were to be addressed."
Penny Newman, chief executive of Platform 51 (formerly YWCA), said: "Every day we work with girls and women who suffer from low self-esteem. Whether it presents as a lack of confidence about their ability, their body or their worth, these deep-seated anxieties really hold girls back from achieving their potential." Childhood trauma or issues around body image are often to blame, she added.
Look to the future: Five role models and the young women who hope to follow in their footsteps
1. Maxine Benson, 50, Everywoman co-founder: "Self confidence and self-esteem are critical for every young girl. Without them she will ... never realise everything she wants to do is possible."
2. Anya Parti,11, aspiring businesswoman
3. Karen Gill, 52, Everywoman co-founder
4. Sophie Morgan-Dyson, 12, aspiring businesswoman
5. Jane Fallon, 51, author
6. Jesse Schubert, 12, multi-talented across the arts: "I think you have to be yourself to achieve what you want to be."
7. Chemmy Alcott, 29, Olympic skier.
8. Jessica Anderson, 13, aspiring skier: "Girls feel they have to look a certain way due to the way we see images in magazines and on the internet. For some girls, if they do not fit this image they start feeling upset and insecure."
9. Michelle McDowell, 48, civil engineer: "So often, I meet young women with fantastic ability but they lack confidence, [so] they may get over-looked .... Building self esteem will help challenge this."
10. Arabella Warne, 11, who would like to be a civil engineer