In an unfair world, confidence is the best gift our daughters can be given

Girls are under a lot of pressure, expected to be smart, and pretty, and cool

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The Independent Online

A confession. All that stuff about wanting to be there at the birth? I was never convinced, largely on the grounds I knew I would be useless. My wife had a very tough time after having our son, and there was a six-year gap before the next one. I was anxious, and befuddled with all this timing-the-contractions lark.

When the beautiful baby popped out, my first reaction was a pang of disappointment. I had mistaken the umbilical cord for a penis – how do you do that? – and when I realised my mistake, there was utter joy, for I had secretly longed for a daughter.

Ruby went off to Oxford yesterday. She’s 12 now, so – happily – there’s still time before she goes to university – if, of course, she works hard enough. But her mother is leading a campaign against female genital mutilation and was speaking at Magdalene College, and Ruby went along to have a look around. I did chuckle at the right-on scenario and reflected how far we have come. The idea that one of my family might go to Oxford? Ridiculous.

Take my mother. She qualified for art college in Glasgow just after the war. She won a scholarship, so money was no real barrier. Her father, though, thought this was no vocation for a young woman, and stopped her going. She was 40, with three children, before she finally made it to college.

Then, there’s my sister. You might as well have suggested the University on the Moon. Growing up where we did in the west of Scotland, Oxford or Cambridge never crossed our radar. Not that this has held her back.

So, it’s progress of sorts that Ruby, and her younger sister, Bella, might consider Oxbridge. This may be more to do with us crossing a class line rather than the advancement of women. But it did make me think about International Women’s Day, and what is in store for our daughters.

One recent report struck a chord. It suggested girls perform worse at solving mathematical and science problems because they lack self-confidence, despite outperforming boys overall. So girls tend to shy away from careers such as engineering.

Confidence is so important: girls, compared with boys, come under so many different pressures. They are expected to be smart, and pretty, and cool. Cliques form and shift according to secret rules, whereas boys tend to be much more straightforward. That can be extremely undermining.

And then, when they leave school, our girls won’t earn as much. Analysis of the Office for National Statistics’ annual survey of hours and earning shows that over a career from 22 to 64, a woman earns £209,976 less than a man. A UN report suggested that it will take 70 years to close this gap. It would take another 50 for a woman to have as much chance of being a chief executive as a man has.

How to help put this right? Let’s imbue our daughters with all the confidence we can. What a joy to have that privilege.