A high-achiever, yes. Above average performance compared to other girls her age, without a doubt. So why doesn't she think so? "There's always someone else to live up to," she sighs. "Someone who's doing better, coping better with the stress. It's hard not to compare yourself to other girls and feel that you're nowhere near as good."
It's not an uncommon response from girls who are set to do well in their exams this summer. For many teenagers who are expected to succeed, self- belief seems to lag some way behind actual achievement. Such a trend is highlighted in a new study, due out this summer, which indicates that middle-class girls aged 16 to 21 suffer high anxiety and low levels of confidence - even though they now outperform boys in many areas.
Valerie Walkerdine, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College who carried out the research, has one explanation: "The majority of middle- class girls went to schools where high performance was the norm and therefore high performance came to be regarded as average." The survey also shows that class is an indicator of how academic performance is viewed. Whereas working-class girls were more likely to be praised by family and friends if they did well at school, a certain standard is taken for granted among middle-class girls - by their peers, teachers and especially themselves.
Sarah, 16, at King Edward VI Handsworth grammar in Birmingham, says, "The pressure is really on at the moment but it's mostly from me. Since I was 10 or 11 I've been pretty aware of the pressure to do well and to not fall below a certain standard." Penny, 16, and also at King Edward's, agrees. "I put more pressure on myself than others do. I also think we worry about work more than the boys. It's more important to us and makes up more of our conversation." Her classmate Susan, 16, seems quite resigned to this contrast. "The boys do seem more relaxed than us. They also seem to do less work, but that's life, I suppose."
A great deal has been made of girls' academic achievements compared to boys', especially at GCSE level. Professor Michael Barber, at the Department for Education and Employment, says, "There are very consistent
patterns of girls being significantly better motivated than boys, more likely to do their homework and less likely to be excluded or to disrupt classes." Yet this doesn't tally with girls' and boys' self-perception. Barber says, "Boys think they're more likely to do well in school than girls, even though they don't. Girls are less likely to have as much confidence as boys but are more likely to succeed."
The ubiquitous force of "girl power' may be sweeping through many of our institutions, from pop to politics, but self-doubt is still an issue for women in a way that it never has been for men. The "Impostor Syndrome" - where women at high levels feel they will somehow be "found out" as incompetent or unworthy of their job title - is still a prevalent feature of their professional life. Ros Taylor, director of Plus Consulting, says "Women are more scared of taking risks. They have a greater fear of failure and of looking stupid. Often they'll think, 'It's me - I'm useless', whereas men don't blame themselves if they fail at something." Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, of Leeds University, agrees: "Women managers tend to rate themselves lower than their male colleagues, and they have a lot of resistance to accepting they are perceived as more competent by others." In this sense, Walkerdine may well have identified a lack of confidence linked with expectation, rather than actual performance, that emerges in the teenage years and never really goes away.
More than ever before, young women are aware that they should be rising through the ranks. But a new problem is that as girls achieve more, their results are not viewed as especially impressive - just increasingly normal. It's a scenario that's familiar to some of the pupils at North London Collegiate, a private girls' school that's among the top three in the league tables. Naomi, now taking her GCSEs, says, "For some the work is effortless. For others it's a long, hard struggle which is never going to pay off because there's always more to be done and someone doing better." Her friend says, "We're already being encouraged to sort out what we want to do now. I know it's a long time off, but we're told we have to have good grades for later on in life."
Tamara, 15, agrees. "Both my mother and grandmother came to this school and there wasn't the same pressure then. With me, it's far more, 'You've got to go on and get a good career.' To opt out of the system would be totally unacceptable." She's also aware that her expectations are probably coloured by a bright peer group. ''I know this school isn't a true reflection of society but in this environment it's very easy to think you're behind and everyone's better than you." Another girl chips in, "I don't think boys worry about their future so much. I think they just work and get it over and done with. Everyone I know is already worrying about where they're going to be at 25. You sometimes feel more machine than human." Another girl adds, "I don't think the boys have had it instilled in them that they owe something - we have to prove girls can do just as well."
You might argue that the pressure at a high-performing private school is bound to be high, but at Lancaster Girls Grammar School, girls also feel the strain. Fiona, 16, is in the Lower VI and says, "You have to sit down and convince yourself that a Grade B isn't such a bad mark. If you don't get the grade, you always think it's you, even though it could be an outside influence."
According to Jannette Elwood, a lecturer at the Institute of Education, this phenomenon is known as "learned helplessness". She explains, "It's what you attribute your failure and success to - girls are more likely to attribute failure to lack of ability, boys to lack of effort. Research shows that more able girls in the top sets can lack confidence in this way." Elwood has also discovered that although girls do better in GCSEs, at A-level it's the boys who are still getting the higher grades. Sue Lees, professor of women's studies at the University of North London, believes that how girls rate their academic ability is further complicated by pressures of self-image. "There are conflicts about being feminine which may relate to the whole issue of lack of confidence; the anxiety about being academic and whether that makes you attractive to men."
But as girls' academic achievements continue to progress - which all the figures confirm and predict - their confidence will surely follow. It's really only a matter of time. What is clear is that young women's values and aspirations are changing so rapidly that even the latest surveys can barely keep up. Professor Barber says, "There has been a huge transformation in girls' attitudes at school and it is an enormous gain that people hardly ever notice." Until you talk to the girls themselves. There are still self-doubts expressed, but these are matched by more positive aspirations. Sixth-former Catherine says, "I want to do engineering because I do feel there are not enough women doing it - and I want to do it much better than the boys."Reuse content