girl power super hero confidence in kids or children
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

I recently did a tiny research project for Tara Mohr on how higher education impacts confidence levels in women, and thought I’d share my findings.

Theorists argue that confidence is not a construct based on theory, but rather a nondescript catchword that refers to the strength of belief (Bandura 1997). Thus, confidence is an informal, popularized term to describe the intersection of self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-concept, and identity.

  • Self-efficacy is the belief one has that they can accomplish a task or goal. It answers the question, “Can I do this?” (Bandura 1977)
  • Self-esteem is the beliefs and feelings one has about their self-worth. It answers the question, “How do I feel about myself?”
  • Self-concept is a broad view of one’s self across a wide range of characteristics. It answers the question, “What am I like?”

Identity, as established through self-categorization and identification, answers the question, “Who am I?”  This draws on two theories: social identity theory and identity theory. Social identity theory states that belonging to a social category or group influences identity (Hogg and Abrams 1988). Identity theory states that identity is the categorization of the self as an occupant of a role, and thus the incorporation of the meanings and expectations associated with that role and its performance into the self (Burke and Tully 1977; Thoits 1986).

To fully understand how higher education impacts confidence levels in women, one must explore each of these influencing concepts, and ultimately define the result that you are interested in measuring. For example, are we most interested in how “confidence” affects motivation, performance, or persistence?

If so, then we can study how each of the four constructs influences these kind of results. In addition, neighboring theories like growth mindset (Dweck 2006), stereotype threat (Steele 2010), belonging (Good 2012), and attribution theory (AWE 2005) can be explored because each influences self-efficacy.

What do we know from the research about how higher education impacts confidence levels in women?

  • High self-efficacy increases interest, engagement, motivation, performance, and persistence.
  • High self-efficacy predicts academic achievement, while high self-esteem does not have a strong correlation with success in school (Bong et al., 2012, Bandura 1997).
  • Self-efficacy is one of the most influential factors for women choosing a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM). In many STEM disciplines, such as engineering, physics, and computer science, the proportion of participating women is stubbornly low, maintaining a persistent disparity.  When girls and women have role models, positive and supportive feedback from others, and past mastery experiences, they are more likely to choose an persist in STEM (Hill 2010).

What studies illuminate how confidence levels can be negatively impacted by higher education experiences, and what have these studies found?

Some bodies of literature to explore:

  • Stereotype threat is being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. Previously mentioned, it is a well-documented phenomenon that negatively affects women and people of color in different ways.
  • Imposter syndrome is the “experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness (Clance 1978).” 
  • Bootstrap mentality
  • Deficit Ideology
  • Marginalized populations in specific fields, such as engineering

How do these findings differ for women of different racial or cultural identities?

All of the bodies of literature listed above can provide an intersectional lens to an overall study / lit review.

Dr. Bettina Love states: “Measuring African-American students’ grit while removing no institutional barriers, then watching to see who beats the odds makes for great Hollywood movies (i.e., “Dangerous Minds,” “The Blind Side,” “Freedom Writers”) and leaves us all feeling good because the gritty black kid made it out of the ‘hood.” (Love 2019)

What findings are conclusive/well-accepted, and which are more pioneering or still controversial?

Much of what I’ve listed so far is conclusive and well accepted, however, there are some theories like growth mindset, and grit that when examined from an intersectional lens, there are some critics.

Also, most of what I have listed are social cognitive theories. While influential to confidence, they are not comprehensive definitions. There are some critics to the more popular social theories because they do not consider climate and ruling relations (Pawley 2019), aka power. It is important to balance our work with an understanding of the larger systems and structures, so as to not further marginalize populations with an unintentional bootstrap mantra.


  • Assessing Women in Engineering (AWE) Project 2005. Attribution Theory. AWE Research Overviews. Retrieved 20190611 from http://www.aweonline.org.
  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.
  • Bong, M., Cho, C., Ahn, H. S., & Kim, H. J. (2012). Comparison of self-beliefs for predicting student motivation and achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 105(5), 336-352.
  • Burke, Peter J. and Judy Tully. 1977. “The Measurement of role identity.” Social Forces 55:881-97.
  • Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success (1st ed.). New York: Random House.
  • Good, Rattan, Dweck. 2012. Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102 (4), 700.
  • John Kolligian Jr. & Robert J. Sternberg (1991) Perceived Fraudulence in Young Adults: Is There an ‘Imposter Syndrome’?, Journal of Personality Assessment, 56:2, 308-326.
  • Hill, Catherine. Why So Few? : Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, D.C.:AAUW, 2010.
  • Hogg, Michael A. and Dominic Abrams. 1988. Social 1dentifications:A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Gro~ip Processes. London: Routledge.
  • Love, Bettina. 2019. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Beacon Press.
  • Pawley AL. 2019, Learning from small numbers: Studying ruling relations that gender and race the structure of U.S. engineering education. J Eng Educ.;108:13–31.
  • Steele, Claude. Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Thoits, Peggy A. 1986. “Multiple Identities: Examining Gender and Marital Status Differences in Distress.” American Sociological Review 51:259-72.

Subscribe to Meagan's Newsletter

Share this post with your friends

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

HI! Let's stay in touch

Please join our mailing list