India, 2004. Two World Bank economists conduct a social experiment. They observe a group of boys from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: one half of the group are members of a low rank of India’s hierarchical caste system, the other half born into a high caste.The economists ask the boys to complete a set of puzzles, twice.

The first time, the boys are told to keep their backgrounds secret. The kids from the lower caste do just as well as the others, and in fact fare slightly better. The second time, each member of the group is asked to announce the caste he comes from to everyone present. This time around, shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly) the boys from the more privileged social rung significantly outperform their low-caste counterparts.

What does this teach us? Fundamentally, this experiment serves as a forceful reminder that the messages society gives us about our worth and our competence have an incredibly powerful impact on our understanding of our own abilities.

An unequal playing field

When I read about this remarkable experiment recently, I felt a keen sense injustice on behalf of the boys whose belief in their abilities faltered because of their social status. But it also made me reflect on other more subtle psychological blockades created by messages from society, in particular ones directed at women and girls.

While men are respected for being high-achieving go-getters in business, women are regularly derided for doing the same, which a now famous Harvard Business School case study illustrates perfectly. Women are expected to be pleasant and fade into the background rather than push ahead to become leaders.

This is bad news for young women entering the workforce today. Studies show that women systematically underestimate their own abilities when compared with men, while upon entering the workforce after college graduation, 57 % of men negotiate their starting salaries compared with only 7 % of women. With these trends firmly in place, we’re raising girls to enter an unequal playing field.

Leaning in to change

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is trying to effect change at the grassroots. Already celebrated for encouraging young professional women to “lean in” to their careers, Sandberg is now bringing her message to high schools and colleges, asking girls the exciting but challenging question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Sandberg, one of a handful of women at the top tier of global business, invites young women to join her in building a more equal world, where women represent half the world’s CEOs and heads of government, not just a token few.

Sandberg’s question to young girls reminds me of that great quote by Marianne Williamson:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

We need to rethink the messages we send girls. In particular, we need to encourage them in education, so that they’re not afraid to become the successful coders, scientists and CEOs of tomorrow. Well, what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

By Deirdre Kilbride

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Image credits: र Evonne) / CC BY 2.0