On what I assumed was going to be a pretty standard day at the office, I ended up learning a valuable life lesson about the power of self-confidence and optimism…and it was all thanks to a precocious six-year-old girl named Piper.
Piper is the daughter of a colleague, Karen, who recently had to bring Piper to the office. To keep Piper occupied while mom worked, Karen brought along some dolls and a “My Little Pony” coloring book and gave Piper a cubicle. Piper had no interest in playing with dolls or coloring. She wanted to be an intern and get to work. Upon sizing up the office environment, Piper very quickly wanted to know what it took to get an office (with a window view of course).
She introduced herself to some of the people around her, and the next thing her mother knew, she was having meetings with a variety of senior leaders in the department – asking them about their jobs and discussing what it would take to get promoted. What a little go-getter! At just six years old, this first grader is fearless. She doesn’t yet know about boundaries and what people are “supposed” to do or not do.
Contrast the Piper story with a very different experience I had just a few days later while visiting a high school as part of a financial literacy program. We were speaking to a class of 9th grade boys and girls to help educate them on basic financial knowledge. To get them engaged in the exercise, we played a quiz game for prizes. The questions were basic and we asked the kids to raise their hand if they knew the answer. To my astonishment, not one girl raised her hand during the entire game. Meanwhile the boys were fully tripping over one another to compete for the prizes.
We were stunned. These young girls – who clearly were bright and interested – were completely silent when the game started. You could almost feel society’s stereotypes settling in all around us as the game wore on. For me, it put a spotlight on the overall experience for young girls in their adolescence. What happens to them between grade school and high school that causes them to lose their self-esteem? Why are they so paralyzed by a fear of failure or not being "cool?"
I’m not an expert on child psychology, but I did some quick research. The National Science Foundation reports that 66% of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, yet only 18% of all college engineering majors are female. In an American Association of University Women’s report, 60% of elementary school girls feel “happy the way I am” vs. 29% of high school girls. And while 49% of those elementary school girls take pride in their school work, that number plummets to 17% in high school.
Now fast forward and you wonder what the consequences are of this early gender-divide later on in life when women go on to college, enter the workforce, get married, or pursue whatever path they choose to take in life. Unfortunately, I fear that the completely contrasting experiences I had with Piper and those high school girls provides insight into the constraints women place on themselves well into adulthood. These differing experiences underscore the cultural biases that impact how girls and women perceive themselves and how they ultimately proceed through life.
For example, an issue near-and-dear to my heart is the lack of confidence women have with regard to their finances. The good news is that we’ve made incredible advancements: we’re more educated and more financially independent than ever before. In two years women will make up 60% of undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. Today, 40% of women out-earn their spouse as the primary breadwinner in the household. Despite this progress, there’s no shortage of research in the marketplace showing a confidence gap for women in areas ranging from salary demands to career advancement.
A study we conducted last year with 800 couples at various stages in their relationship showed that women are still less confident than men about investing, they routinely defer to their spouse on financial decisions, and they actually believe men are better with numbers. In fact, only one in four Boomer women identify themselves as the primary decision maker for day to-day financial decisions. And this is perpetuated among even our youngest couples – with only one in eight members of Gen Y calling herself the primary decision-maker.
This confidence gap is an issue that impacts all of us, whether you are a woman, or whether it’s your mother, wife, sister or daughter. At some point in a woman’s life – either due to longevity, divorce or other life choices, she is likely to be the sole financial decision maker. Women are fully capable of making these critical decisions and statistically do a very good job when they do. They cannot let confidence stand in the way of living to their full potential, particularly when it comes to being financially ready for the next stage of their life.
It’s clear we need to break this cycle. There’s no good reason why women shouldn’t be just as confident as men.
We can learn much from young girls like Piper. These young girls are not yet weighed down by stereotypes or conflicting emotions. They are not worried about whether it’s “cool” to be smarter than the boys. They aren’t preoccupied with their looks or their weight. They ask a lot of questions. They aren’t held back by fear of being wrong. They’re direct. They have high expectations. They are very capable and want to improve all the time.
As we each continue on our own journey, Piper is an excellent reminder of the power of possibility, the freedom that exists before bias sets in and the boundless optimism that propels us forward in any endeavor. We would all do well to take a page out of Piper’s book and channel our “inner six-year old.”
In case you’re wondering what ever happened to little Piper…you’ll be happy to know that before she left Fidelity that day, she was promoted to “senior intern” and got her window office.