Roughly three out of four teenage girls experience anxiety, according to the 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey. Seventy-six percent of tenth grade girls have felt extremely nervous or anxious and 13 percent have attempted suicide.
What is going on and how can we as parents help? We turned to educator and researcher Rachel Simmons. Founder of Oakland-based outreach organization Girls Leadership and leadership development specialist at Smith College, Simmons believes there’s no one reason why so many young women feel anxious.
Still, there is one reason she often sees in her work: more pressure.
“We hope for girls to be smart and brave and interested in STEM fields, but we still expect them to be thin and sexually attractive and have a witty and appealing online presence,” she says. “No matter how many achievements they accrue, they feel that they are not enough as they are … We haven’t really upgraded our expectations, we’ve just added on to the old ones.”
She addresses this pressure and how parents can help their daughters thrive in her latest book, “Enough As She Is” (out Feb. 27).
It’s not a bad thing that we’re instilling more confidence in our girls, Simmons says. The problem is that we’re still raising them in a toxic culture that hasn’t caught up with those new expectations.
“That’s how girls wind up feeling something is wrong with them, when in fact … something is deeply wrong with our culture,” she says. In the last decade alone, Simmons says she’s seen “the rise of social media, arrival of college admissions mania, and ever more ruthless pressure to be thin tighten the rules of success for girls in punishing ways.”
And that, she notes, undermines the development of their confident, authentic selves. But that doesn’t mean there’s no solution. We asked Simmons why our daughters are experiencing so much anxiety — and what parents can do to help.
Why does more opportunity lead to increased anxiety in teenage girls?
Girls have too many roles to play and too many roles conflict with each other. Add this role overload to the fact that girls continue to need to please others first and be likable. Girls are still raised with a psychology that is trained to think about other people before themselves. This all is a real recipe for unhappiness.
My goal is to give parents tools to help girls carve out a life and a sense of self that feels authentic and important to them that isn’t fully shaped by what other people expect of them. It’s not that challenges are going to go away; it’s about how to manage these challenges. For example, I never tell girls that they are going to stop overthinking things. The question is: Do you know how to manage overthinking and how to understand it?
Got any tips for how to get your teen daughter to actually, you know, talk?
Teenagers are notorious for not wanting to talk when you want to talk. Annoyingly, they’re not interested in talking on your schedule and they want to talk when it’s not convenient for you. If they are deflecting your attempt to talk, ask yourself, ’Is this the right time for them to talk?’ Can you agree upon a different time to talk?
It’s also super important for parents to find that middle way between being authoritarian versus permissive. Kind but firm, gentle, curious and humble. Try saying, ‘There’s a lot I don’t know, and I would love to hear more about what I don’t know; here’s what I am thinking as your parent.’
Every teenager wants to have respect. I’m not talking about them getting to go out until 1 a.m. I’m talking about establishing trust in your teenager’s perspective. That’s being able to say, ‘Hey, listen. There are things you have to tell me’ while [also] standing firm with the fact that you’re the parent and the boss.
And how should you respond when your daughter does tell you something big?
When your child does open up and tell you something big, it’s so important to note that. You say to your kid in that situations, ‘Thank you so much for telling me that.’ Their job is not to serve you by telling you things — their job is to be secretive — so be grateful when they tell you things.
Where does the use of social media come into this?
There’s a real trend of using fear and shame to teach about social media: ‘Your life will be ruined if you do the wrong thing online.’ But teaching through fear and shame isn’t effective for teens.
Social media in and of itself is not harmful — it’s the way in which it’s used that can be harmful. It’s important for parents to make an effort to understand why their kids love it, and to understand their kids are going to make mistakes … Parents need to be clear with their kids about parameters and expectations around use. I don’t think that means being a spy, but you must play a role in how your kids learn to be online through rules and expectations.
In your book, you recommend creating a ‘failure resume’ that lists ways you have failed in your life and sharing that with your daughter. Why?
If you create a failure resume and talk about it with your daughter, you’re desensitizing her to the power of failure. You’re talking about something that’s often taboo and lessening the shame around it. You’re also normalizing failure, making it fun and funny, which makes it less scary.To be comfortable with your setbacks is a muscle that you must flex again and again. It’s a skill.
A failure resume is an ingredient for the recipe [of how to deal with failure]. Essentially my whole book is about this recipe for building resilience. I talk about what is threatening girls and how to respond to it, how to be resilient. I’ve learned that what girls really need are the skills to lean inside as much as to lean in: to practice self-compassion, nourish their most important relations and seek support when needed.
Deborah M. Roffman is the author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex and a teacher in the lower, middle, and upper schools at the Park School of Baltimore (Maryland). She’s consulted with faculty and parents at more than 300 schools nationwide around the implementation of comprehensive, truly age-appropriate K–12 sexuality education. You can reach her at Talk2MeFirst.com.
I don’t know what the world record is, but I’m pretty sure I’m close: My first experience with sexual harassment occurred within the first 10 minutes on my first shift at my very first job.
Newly hired as a hostess for a local restaurant, I was excited to have landed a summer job between college semesters. I was nervous, too, because I had no idea what to expect. What I definitely didn’t expect was Mr. Leonard.
As the restaurant manager, Mr. Leonard, a married man in his mid-40s, made a point of “joking” with every new hire that while he lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, once his car crossed the midpoint on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on his way to work every morning, he was “single.”
At first, and in my naïveté, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. It soon became clear. I heard him repeatedly telling obscene “jokes” about sex, and witnessed him ogling and making disgusting comments about waitresses’ bodies to their faces and from behind them. Once, I saw him snap the bra strap of a woman who bent over to take something out of a case. One day he told me he could see the outline of my bra under my hostess dress (which he was staring at) and then sent me home to put on a slip to avoid “offending the customers.”
I lasted two weeks. While the term “hostile work environment” had not yet been coined, I knew emotionally I was in one. Looking back, my most important lesson was recognizing that I left because I could. The older women did not have the privilege of quitting. Most were caring for children at home, and the loss of income would have been devastating for their families. Their only option was to suffer through it in silence. Besides, to whom could they complain, since the perpetrator was also the boss?
A Pervasive Problem
Sexual harassment was a ubiquitous problem that had no name until the early 1980s, when federal courts defined it as an illegal form of “gender discrimination” in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The U.S. Office of Equal Employment Opportunity (OEEO) was charged with creating mechanisms for filing complaints and procedures for ongoing enforcement. Later court cases made these new rules applicable to school environments as well.
But, it was not until 1991, during Clarence Thomas’s U.S. Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings—when Anita Hill famously accused Thomas of sexual harassment, while both were working at the OEEO, which he headed, no less—that the entire nation, all at once, received its first meaningful education about this scourge. Now, it had an official name as well as the force of the federal government behind its adjudication.
As recent high-profile events make clear, nonetheless, sexual harassment remains ever-present in our society, even in the lives of women (and men) who are powerful in their own right. This time, however, I’m much more optimistic about the prospects for lasting awareness and change.
The Prospects for Change
First, and really only within the past five years, American society has finally begun to treat the problem of sexual assault—sexual harassment in its most extreme form—with the seriousness it deserves. Moreover, a new standard for defining “sexual consent” has emerged: What counts is no longer “the absence of no,” but rather “the unequivocal presence of an enthusiastic verbal yes.” This is no mere linguistic change, since as a very practical matter it shifts the onus for establishing consent squarely on the person who desires sexual activity, not the person they desire. Verbal permission before crossing another person’s sexual boundaries is required.
These two developments have been hugely important in helping us and our students to better understand and help prevent sexual assault. Now, as our collective attention is drawn to highly publicized disclosures of chronic sexual harassment perpetrated by powerful, well-known men across diverse businesses and professional fields, another new and potentially transformative element is in the mix: public accountability.
The swift, hard fall from positions of enormous power, status, and wealth for many of these men delivers a resounding message: “This behavior, once and for all, is intolerable and will bring serious consequences.” Public accountability inevitably begets more public accountability, because victims feel supported in knowing they are not alone and can recognize, finally, they were in no way at fault; it also exposes to public scrutiny the hidden malignancies that keep entrenched patriarchy and “toxic masculinity” alive.
What About Our Students?
Sexual harassment statutes pertain only to schools and workplaces, because students must go to school and most people have to work. (If someone is the recipient of catcalls on a particular street, on the other hand, they can simply take another route.) Educational institutions, of course, are both workplaces and schools. Without question, it is incumbent upon all schools to establish policies and practices that provide clear, equitable procedures for reporting, investigating, and resolving sexual harassment complaints—involving students of all sexual and gender identities—and maintaining safe school environments. A recently launched campaign, #MeTooK12, aims to lobby and support schools in improving their efforts. Read about it here.
It’s vital to recognize, though, that most of the sexual harassment today’s students perpetuate and/or experience does not occur in formal settings like schools and workplaces, but within their everyday social interactions, much of it in the form of hostile, cruel, degrading, and coercive online communication. Regardless of venue, though, it is shaped and fueled by the very same patriarchal mix that defines “real” masculinity in terms of superiority, entitlement, dominance, winning at all costs, and the conflation of sex and power.
Before men are men, they are boys. Until parents and schools commit to intentionally raising both boys and girls with high expectations and a single standard of values based on empathy and fairness—with sex and gender being no exception—we can expect these harmful and oppressive patterns to continue. Now is a very good time to take on this challenge.
I never really expected the Golden Globes to offer me a teachable moment, but it did. Women, dressed almost exclusively in black, spoke with passion and eloquence about restorative justice and “speaking out without the fear of retribution.” They spoke almost in unison about the systemic sexual abuse entrenched in our society and how social movements like #MeToo can help facilitate change.
Men, a few wearing pins reading “Time’s Up” on their lapels, said virtually nothing about the biggest theme of the night. For the most part, they went about business as usual, seemingly unwilling or incapable of using their powerful voices to discuss the issue taking the spotlight. Why aren’t they talking about this? I found myself asking. What should they say be saying if they did speak?
Over the past couple of days, I have been asking my students those questions. Their answers offer some insight into the complexities of advocacy and how we as educators might help empower our students to combat injustices they see, even—or especially—when those injustices don’t directly affect them.
“It’s a women’s issue” was a popular response among boys. “They don’t want to say anything because they are hiding their own assaults and harassment” was popular among the girls. Quickly it became evident that my students were divided along the same lines as that fancy ballroom full of movie stars, directors and producers. The conversation was rapidly leaning toward a dynamic of us versus them.
Many of the students seemed to believe that, in order to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, one must be a woman and/or a survivor. Some, in attempts to clarify those ideas, made connections to the Black Lives Matter movement, which they identified as a movement that white people couldn’t effectively speak out about.
“It is like that Macklemore song,” one student interjected. I know the song, “A Wake,” and pull up the lyrics on my phone: “And my subconscious telling me stop it/ This is an issue that you shouldn’t get involved in/ Don’t even tweet ‘R.I.P Trayvon Martin’/ Don’t wanna be that white dude million-man marching/ Fighting for a freedom that my people stole.” Another student quickly pointed out that Macklemore is talking about race and sexual orientation even though he is white and straight; he is using his platform and his voice to influence change.
This idea of ownership kept coming up throughout our discussions. Many students felt that only people directly affected by sexual exploitation could rally behind a campaign to change it. They thought it was disingenuous or fraudulent to fight for a cause that wasn’t “theirs.” Others challenged that idea and pushed their peers to see that those with historical power must raise their voices in support of those trying to gain equal footing.
From there, we shifted to another challenge: not knowing what to do or what to say. The students in my classes, especially boys who had never been on the receiving end of a sexually degrading comment or sexually predatory act, were unsure what to say on the subject. We brainstormed this for a few minutes, first writing down ideas and then discussing what the men at the awards could have said.
“Sorry,” one student volunteered. “They could start by simply saying they are sorry that this has continued for so long, sorry that they heard talk about it or actually witnessed it and didn’t do anything.” Another student took it a step further by suggesting the men could have made a pledge to never look the other way again, but instead challenge sexually exploitative behavior. And still another thought the men’s silence was a good thing. “Maybe they should just keep quiet and let the women talk. Maybe it is their turn.”
From there, some students made connections to their own lives, transitioning from Hollywood to our own hallways. Several drew connections to the anti-bullying campaign our school has run for years now encouraging students to be “Upstanders rather than Bystanders.”
“It is the same thing for sure,” one student said passionately. “How many times have you heard a guy say, ‘Nice ass’ and let it go without calling him out?” Lots of heads nodded.
Of course, this conversation is just the beginning, but the Golden Globes offered a good segue into a discussion of the roles we can play in helping people fight for a cause that might not immediately affect us. Perhaps more than any lesson, I want my students to see the ways in which we are all connected in these struggles.
I am hoping to make 2018 the year of advocacy in my classroom. In two decades of teaching, I have never seen so many opportunities to tap into popular culture and teach students about advocacy—public and active support for a cause or course of action.
#TakeAKnee, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo. We’re surrounded by opportunities to teach our students a crucial lesson: An injustice does not need to touch you directly for you to speak out against it.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.
Try one of these thought-provoking documentaries to get kids thinking (and learning).
September 01, 2017
If you want to get kids’ attention, show them how an issue affects real people. From bullying to STEM to autism, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids’ eyes and encourage discussion. And when they’re shown as part of a lesson, teachers can help students understand and analyze what they’ve seen.
As the definition of literacy continues to broaden — encompassing skills for analyzing not only text-based media, but also visual media, audio, and more — it’s important to include documentary films as part of the classroom content selection. Happily, lots of documentaries either about or targeted at middle school-age kids come with educator resources, so they’re easy to integrate into an existing unit or use in after-school programs.
These are nine of our favorite documentary picks for middle school classrooms. They’re not always easy to watch, but all will strike a chord with middle schoolers and are guaranteed to spark a great conversation.
It’s heartbreaking and difficult to watch, but this frank documentary is essential viewing for middle schoolers. Ultimately it encourages kids to stand up to bullies rather than stand by, and it reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference.
Teacher tips: Because the movie addresses suicide and self-harm, it’s important to front-load and frame these intense topics carefully. Make sure you know which students could feel especially triggered by the movie and create a safe space for students to share their own experiences. Emphasize how kids can be empowered to help each other and what resources are available. Classes could even come up with action plans to address whatever bullying might exist in their school.
The stories shared in this informative, intense film aren’t always easy to hear — it touches on topics ranging from inequality to human trafficking, child marriage, and more — but nothing graphic is shown, and kids who watch are guaranteed to want to talk about it.
Teacher tips: Before watching the movie, kids can create a timeline of their own childhood up to this point, highlighting the most important events. And what do they plan for the future? Since some kids will be shocked by what girls face in various places, make sure to prepare them for some of the more intense issues, like rape and trafficking. Then explore what their timelines might look like and how past events might affect the futures of the girls in the film. Focus on the resilience of the featured girls and how they see education as a path to a better future.
Moving, intense, and also delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the inspiring role model while simultaneously making her a relatable teen. Meet your students’ new BFF.
Teacher tips: One way to frame this one is through the idea of superheroes: Usually, something extraordinary happens to an ordinary person, and their lives change. How is this also true for real-life heroes? Some kids in your class have probably heard her name, so tap into their prior knowledge before watching the movie, then talk about how her path follows one similar to a superhero’s. What does it take to be a real-life hero? Have kids explore topics that are important to them, and document their steps to make a difference in that area.
Powerful and poignant, this film follows 11-year-olds from around the world (Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as they share their thoughts, triumphs, and challenges.
Teacher tips: Encourage kids to find connections between their own experiences and the ones in the movie, then explore the differences. What do they have in common with one or more of the kids in the film? What’s different from their own experiences? Consider having students become virtual ambassadors to a featured country and do research around school, family, and culture.
Want to show teens that they have the ability and the talent to make a difference? Then check out this empowering story of young people who learn the skills to create something (a new farmers’ market for their rural community) and actually get to do it.
Teacher tips: Seeing these teens and adults work together to solve a problem/provide a service in their community can be a jumping-off point for a similar project in your own community. Ideally, and depending on your resources, kids can identify a problem to solve or a service to provide. Then they can figure out the best ways to implement the plan (and hopefully do it!), which can be a great cross-curricular opportunity.
This incredibly moving documentary beautifully captures the emotional story of a young man with autism and his lifelong love of Disney movies, which allow him to process the world and communicate with the people he loves. It’s sweet, funny, and relatable.
Teacher tips: Teachers can take this in a number of directions: You could talk about ASD and other learning differences that can affect how people interact with the world. Kids can then connect that to their own learning process and identify something — like the Disney movies in the film — that helps them in their process. Or you can focus on communication and the power of storytelling. Which stories serve as a window into your students’ world? They can create personal stories that might also help others.
Kids are sure to be inspired by the story of Jessica Cox, a young woman born without arms who’s had a significant impact as a role model, motivational speaker, and activist for people with disabilities.
Teacher tips: Jessica’s story is a great example of overcoming what seems like a limitation and working with it in order to excel and thrive. Kids can identify their own strengths and challenges and create a visual representation of how they can overcome those struggles. In a museum-style exhibition, kids could display their artifacts with an artist’s explanation.
Looking for a story to drive home the importance of STEM in schools? Try this feel-good true story about a group of low-income teens who beat groups from renowned universities (including MIT!) in a robotics competition.
Teacher tips: Talk about the students’ journey to success. What roadblocks did they encounter? How did they overcome them, what character strengths helped them, and how did others support them? With awareness around your classroom climate, you can also discuss the issue of documentation and what it means. If someone is undocumented, what are some of the potential challenges? Finally, talk about STEM and its importance. How do the students in the film show that STEM can go far beyond the classroom? Kids are bound to want to create something after watching, so capitalize on that inspiration and let them innovate!
Holy girl power, Batman! This knockout film looks at the historical context of Wonder Woman origins and explains how she’s changed over the decades — yet how the need for girls and women to see powerful images of themselves really hasn’t.
Teacher tips: Kids can explore gender representations from different decades and determine what the messages are — and have been in the past — for girls and boys. How have things changed, if at all? Why does it matter? For a broader conversation, kids can talk about why representation matters in general and create their own superheroes to show which qualities and characteristics they’d include.
SYDNEY, Australia — Girls at public schools across the state of Western Australia will be allowed to wear pants and shorts to class, no longer restricted to only dresses, skirts or skorts.
The Education Department, in response to a complaint from an 11-year-old student, announced last week that it would amend a statewide dress code to offer girls more uniform options.
Students and parents have long voiced complaints about the policy, but the pushback has gained renewed momentum.
After Krystina Myhre, of Perth, discovered that her 11-year-old, Sofia, could not wear shorts to school, they wrote to the state’s education minister, Sue Ellery, calling for a change.
“My daughter and her friends have been quite unhappy about it for some time,” said Ms. Myhre, who is also a representative of Girls’ Uniform Agenda, a group that campaigns for girls to have the option of wearing shorts and pants. The rule restricted their movement, she said, making them worry about their body and space.
The dress code made it difficult to participate in athletic activities, Sofia said.
“I think it’s really unfair that my brothers have been allowed to wear shorts, and all through primary school I haven’t been allowed to except when I have sport,” she wrote in her letter. “I really love kicking the footy, netball and doing handstands at recess and lunch. It is annoying doing these things in a skirt.”
Ms. Ellery said that after meeting with the Myhres, she asked her department to ensure the policy was nondiscriminatory.
The change does not apply to private schools, but a number of private schools in Perth said this week that they planned to follow suit. “We are introducing trousers for girls next year, but it’s very much an option,” said Robert Henderson, principal of John XXIII College, a Catholic private school. “It’s certainly not throwing out the traditional uniform.” The decision came after consulting with employees, students and parents.
It is unclear how many schools across Australia require girls to wear skirts.
Girls’ Uniform Agenda is still compiling data. So far, about 70 percent of public high schools and all private high schools in Brisbane, Queensland, mandate wearing a skirt, said Amanda Mergler, a co-founder of the group, but a handful of private schools allow exceptions in the winter. That percentage is likely similar in other states, too.
Such a requisite, Dr. Mergler said, can perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, leaving girls to believe that they should sit and look pretty, while boys may be perceived as active explorers. Dr. Mergler said she pulled her 6-year-old daughter from one school after a classmate told her she could not use the girls’ bathroom because she was wearing pants. “You look around schoolyards and where girls have had to wear dresses and skirts,” Dr. Mergler said. “They’re sitting down on the sidelines and watching boys run around and playing in shorts.”
One study in 2012 found that when 10-year-old girls wore sports uniforms over skirts, they were significantly more active during recess.
Most education departments let individual schools determine dress code, though they usually have a provision that the guidelines must comply with anti-discrimination policies. In New South Wales, for example, the department states that rules should accommodate the “diverse nature of the student population in the school and not disadvantage any student.” In Queensland, principals are urged to offer a “gender neutral” option.
Because of the ambiguity in language, Dr. Mergler said, schools can claim they are complying with the code by simply providing boys and girls uniforms. Parents in Queensland continue to lobby for an amended policy after an effort to allow girls to wear pants was rejected in May.
In Victoria, a petition to change the policy has drawn more than 20,000 signatures.
Most arguments seem to rest on tradition.
“I think tradition plays a strong part in our schools, and we often want to honor those traditions,” Mr. Henderson said. His school will provide the option to wear pants, he said, but that should be for schools to determine on an individual basis.
“Certainly in private schools, there’s an element of longstanding traditions and parents sometimes thinking, ‘I went to that school and I wore that dress, and I want my daughter to wear that dress,’” Dr. Mergler said. “And the uniform is quite symbolic.”
When she first broached the idea of amending the dress code at her daughter’s school, some parents defended skirts as a way to accustom girls to wearing dresses in the workplace.
“In the real world, women get to choose,” Dr. Mergler said. “I choose today whether I put on pants or skirts, and we want girls to have the same choice at schools.”
As for Sofia Myhre, her mother said that the exercise was a good lesson in effecting change. “I think she yelped in joy actually and jumped up and down,” she said of her daughter’s reaction upon learning the policy would be amended. “She was really excited.”
Sunday 11 June 2017 01.00 EDTLast modified on Friday 23 June 2017 13.19 EDT
Four years ago, completely spent, blood transfused into me in a frantic effort to allow me to walk, I lay on a hospital bed having given birth the day before. To the joy of my family, I had brought them a son. Blue balloons foretold a man in the making. Not just the apple of my eye, but the one who would one day open jam jars for me. The hero who would do the DIY and put out the rubbish. He who was born to be strong because he is male.
But then, physical strength can be defined in different ways. What I was yet to learn was that, beneath our skin, women bubble with a source of power that even science has yet to fully understand. We are better survivors than men. What’s more, we are born this way.
“Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better than men,” says Steven Austad, an international expert on ageing, and chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama. For almost two decades, he has been studying one of the best-known yet under-researched facts of human biology: that women live longer than men. His longevity database shows that all over the world and as far back as records have been kept, women outlive men by around five or six years. He describes them as being more “robust”.
Robustness, toughness or pure power – whatever it’s called – this survival ability cracks apart the stereotype. The physically strong woman is almost a myth. We gaze upon great female athletes as though they’re other-worldly creatures. Greek legend could only imagine the Amazons, female warriors as powerful as men. They break the laws of nature. No, we everyday women, we have just half the upper body strength of men. We are six inches shorter, depending on where we live. We wield power, but it’s emotional and intellectual, we tell ourselves. It’s not in our bodies.
Not so, says Austad. He is among a small cadre of researchers who believe that women may hold the key to prolonging life. In extremely old age, the gap between the sexes becomes a glaring one.
According to a tally maintained by the global Gerontology Research Group, today, 43 people around the world are known to be living past the age of 110. Of these supercentenarians, 42 are women. Interviews with the world’s current oldest person, 117-year-old Violet Brown, who lives in Jamaica, reveal she enjoys eating fish and mutton. She once worked as a plantation worker. Her lifestyle betrays few clues as to how she has lived so long. But one factor we know has helped is being a woman.
Yet there is bizarrely little research to explain the biology behind this. What scientists do know is that this edge doesn’t emerge in later life. It is there from the moment a girl is born. “When we were there on the neonatal unit and a boy came out, you were taught that, statistically, the boy is more likely to die,” says Joy Lawn, director of the Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She explains that, globally, a million babies die on the day of their birth every year.
But if they receive exactly the same level of care, males are statistically at a 10% greater risk than females. What makes baby girls so robust remains mostly a mystery. Research published in 2014 by scientists at the University of Adelaide suggests that a mother’s placenta may behave differently depending on the sex of the baby, doing more to maintain the pregnancy and increase immunity against infections. For reasons unknown, girls may be getting an extra dose of survivability in the womb.
Wherever it comes from, women seem to be shielded against sickness later on. “Cardiovascular disease occurs much earlier in men than women. The age of onset of hypertension [high blood pressure] also occurs much earlier in men than women. And there’s a sex difference in the rate of progression of disease,” says Kathryn Sandberg, director of the Centre for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Ageing and Disease at Georgetown University.
Austad found that in the United States in 2010, women died at lower rates than men from 12 of the 15 most common causes of death, including cancer and heart disease, when adjusted for age. Of the three exceptions, their likelihood of dying from Parkinson’s or stroke was about the same. And they were more likely than men to die of Alzheimer’s disease. “Once I started investigating, I found that women had resistance to almost all the major causes of death,” he says.
Even when it comes to everyday coughs and colds, women have the advantage. “If you look across all the different types of infections, women have a more robust immune response,” adds Sandberg. “If there’s a really bad infection, they survive better. If it’s about the duration of the infection, women will respond faster.” One explanation for this is hormones. Higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone could be protecting women in some way, not only by making our immune systems stronger, but also more flexible. This may help maintain a healthy pregnancy. A woman’s immune system is more active in the second half of her menstrual cycle, when she’s able to conceive.
On the downside, a powerful immune response also makes women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The body is so good at fighting off infection that it attacks its own cells. And this may explain why women tend to report more pain and sickness than men. “This is one of the penalties of being a better survivor. You survive, but maybe not quite as intact as you were before,” says Austad. Another factor is simply that men are dying more. “Part of the reason there are more women than men around in ill health is to do with the fact that women have survived events that would kill men, so the equivalent men are no longer with us,” he adds.
When it comes to biological sex difference, though, everything isn’t always as it seems. At least some of the gaps in health and survival may be social, reflecting gender behaviour. Women may be more likely to seek medical help, for instance. Men may have less healthy diets or do more dangerous work. Nonetheless, Austad and Sandberg are convinced that nature accounts for a good deal of what we see.
If they are right, this raises a deeper scientific conundrum. Our bodies adapted over millennia to our environments. So what could it have been in our evolutionary past that gave the female body a little more of this magical robustness? How and why would one sex have developed a survival edge over the other?
Studies of hunter-gatherer societies, who live the way we all may have done before fixed settlements and agriculture, provide a few clues. Many anthropologists studying tribal communities in Africa, South America, Asia and Australia believe early humans lived fairly equal lives, sharing responsibility for food, shelter and raising children. The Flintstones model, with wife at home and husband bringing back the bacon, just doesn’t stand up. Instead, the evidence shows that women would have done at least the same physical work as men, but with the added burden of bearing children.
“There’s a general consensus now that hunting-gathering societies, while not perfectly egalitarian, were less unequal, particularly with regard to gender equality,” says Melvin Konner, professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, who has spent years doing fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Africa. “Because of the scale of the group dynamics, it would be impossible for men to exclude women.”
The more research that is done, the more this is reinforced. Even hunting – that prototypical male activity – is being recast as a female one, too. Anthropologist Rebecca Bliege Bird, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offers me the example of the Martu, an aboriginal tribe in Western Australia. “When Martu women hunt, one of their favourite prey are feral cats. It’s not a very productive activity, but it’s a chance for women to show off their skill acquisition.”
Indeed, women are known to be particularly good at endurance running, notes Marlene Zuk, who runs a lab focusing on evolutionary biology at the University of Minnesota. In her 2013 book Paleofantasy, she writes that women’s running abilities decline extremely slowly into old age. They’ve been known to go long distances even while pregnant. In 2011, for example, Amber Miller ran the Chicago marathon before giving birth seven hours later. World record holder Paula Radcliffe has trained through two pregnancies.
Why, then, are we not all Amazons? Why do we imagine femininity to mean small, waif-like bodies? The lives of most ordinary women, outside the pages of magazines, destroy this notion. Visiting India’s cities, I see female construction workers lining the streets, hauling piles of bricks on their heads to building sites. In Kenya, I meet female security guards everywhere, patrolling offices and hotels. Out in rural areas, there are women doing hard physical labour, often hauling their children in slings. Our ancestors would have done the same.
In evolutionary terms, these were the circumstances under which our bodies were forged. For an enormous chunk of early human history, as we migrated through Africa to the rest of the world, women would also have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, sometimes under extreme environmental conditions. “Just reproducing and surviving in these conditions, talk about natural selection!” I’m told by Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when I visit her at her home in San Francisco.
Zihlman has dedicated her career to understanding human anatomy, and in particular the evolution of women’s bodies. “Women have to reproduce. That means being pregnant for nine months. They’ve got to lactate. They’ve got to carry these kids. There’s something about being a human female that was shaped by evolution. There’s a lot of mortality along the way that really can account for it.”
When I gave birth to my son, I did the most physically demanding thing a human can do. Yet I am considered the weaker sex. Zihlman reminds me that my body was made strong by the struggles of countless generations of women who went before. “There is something about the female form, the female psyche, just the whole package, that was honed over thousands and thousands, even millions, of years to survive,” she smiles. I happen to remember, in that moment, that at home I do all the DIY.
Myths and misses: five more things you didn’t know about women and men
Separate symptoms Women and men present different symptoms for the same medical conditions. Women are more likely to have insomnia and fatigue in the weeks before they have a heart attack, rather than the chest pain commonly experienced by men.
Changes of life Women in India, Japan and China experience far fewer menopause symptoms than western women who commonly report hot flushes, night sweats, depression and insomnia. Scientists at King’s College London argue this could be due to women lumping together their experience of growing older with the menopause.
Casual sex Women are choosier but not more chaste than men. A study by two German researchers, Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht, found that women want casual sex just as much as men and were as likely as males to have sex with a stranger, as long as it was in a safe environment.
Boys’ toys A 2010 study by Professor Melissa Hines at the University of Cambridge found that girls on average were genetically predisposed to prefer dolls while boys liked to play with mechanical toys such as trains.
Risky business Testosterone is associated with higher levels of optimism, rather than aggression. Saliva samples taken from traders on the London Stock Exchange confirmed they had higher than average testosterone levels. Scientists from Britain, the USA and Spain concluded this increase made the traders more optimistic so more likely to take big financial risks.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini is published by Fourth Estate at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Main photograph: Acrobats JD and Nikki; Stylist Hope Lawrie; special effects make-up Julia Bowden
A Smith College initiative called “Failing Well” is one of a crop of university programs that aim to help high achievers cope with basic setbacks.
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.
“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.
“I came out to my mom, and she asked, ‘Is this until graduation?’” another said.
The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.
“I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”
“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels,’ ” said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it “has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”
This was not a hazing ritual, but part of a formalized program at the women’s college in which participants more accustomed to high test scores and perhaps a varsity letter consent to having their worst setbacks put on wide display.
“It was almost jarring,” said Carrie Lee Lancaster, 20, a rising junior. “On our campus, everything can feel like such a competition, I think we get caught up in this idea of presenting an image of perfection. So to see these failures being talked about openly, for me I sort of felt like, ‘O.K., this is O.K., everyone struggles.’”
The presentation is part of a new initiative at Smith, “Failing Well,” that aims to “destigmatize failure.” With workshops on impostor syndrome, discussions on perfectionism, as well as a campaign to remind students that 64 percent of their peers will get (gasp) a B-minus or lower, the program is part of a campuswide effort to foster student “resilience,” to use a buzzword of the moment.
“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” said Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life and a kind of unofficial “failure czar” on campus. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”
Ms. Simmons would know. She hid her own failure (dropping out of a prestigious scholarship program in her early 20s; told by her college president that she had embarrassed her school) for close to a decade. “For years, I thought it would ruin me,” she said.
Which is why, when students enroll in her program, they receive a certificate of failure upon entry, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”
A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.
Preoccupied in the 1980s with success at any cost (think Gordon Gekko), the American business world now fetishizes failure, thanks to technology experimentalist heroes like Steve Jobs. But while the idea of “failing upward” has become a badge of honor in the start-up world — with blog posts, TED talks, even industry conferences — students are still focused on conventional metrics of achievement, campus administrators say.
Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, they seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.
“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”
Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”
It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.
A consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.
“There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the project in her junior year. “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”
At the University of Texas, Austin, there is now a free iPhone app, Thrive, that helps students “manage the ups and downs of campus life” through short videos and inspirational quotes. The University of California, Los Angeles has what it calls a head of student resilience on staff. While at Davidson College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina, there is a so-called failure fund, a series of $150 to $1,000 grants for students who want to pursue a creative endeavor, with no requirements that the idea be viable or work. “We encourage students to learn from their mistakes and lean into their failure,” the program’s news release states.
“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.”
And so, universities are engaging in a kind of remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.
“I think colleges are revamping what they believe it means to be well educated — that it’s not about your ability to write a thesis statement, but to bounce back when you’re told it doesn’t measure up,” said Ms. Simmons, the author of two books on girls’ self-esteem who is publishing a third, “Enough as She Is,” next year. “Especially now, with the current economy, students need tools to pivot between jobs, between careers, to work on short-term projects, to be self-employed. These are crucial life skills.”
If it all feels a bit like a “Portlandia” sketch, that’s because it actually was one: in which Fred and Carrie decide to hire a bully to teach grit to students, one who uses padded gym mats to make sure the children don’t actually get hurt.
Add “teaching failure” to nap pods (yes, those exist) and campus petting zoos (also common), and you’ve got to wonder, as a cover story in Psychology Today questioned last year: At what point do colleges end up more like mental health wards than institutions of higher learning?
“Look, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trying to create experiences that are calming,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Penn. “But I’d like to spend a bit more time figuring out what’s causing those stresses.”
Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.
It is fear about the economy — Is the American dream still a possibility? Will I be able to get a job after graduation? — and added pressure to succeed felt by first-generation and low-income students: of being the first in their families to go to college; of having to send money home; or simply overcoming the worry that, as one engineering student put it, “maybe I was a quota.”
“I’m coming from a low-income, predominantly African-American community where there just aren’t resources,” said Arabia Simeon, 19, a junior at Smith. “So there is this added pressure of needing to do well.”
And there’s the adjustment, for many high-achieving students, of no longer being “the best and brightest” on campus, said Amy Jordan, the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication at Penn. Or what Smithies call “special snowflake syndrome.”
“We all came from high schools where we were all the exception to the rule — we were kind of special in some way, or people told us that,” said Cai Sherley, 20, seated in the campus cafe. Around her, Zoleka Mosiah, Ms. Simeon and Ms. Lancaster nodded in agreement. “So you get here and of course you want to recreate that,” Ms. Sherley said. “But here, everybody’s special. So nobody is special.”
Social media doesn’t help, because while students may know logically that no one goes through college or, let’s be honest, life without screw-ups, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself, by way of somebody else’s feed, “that everyone but you is a star,” said Jaycee Greeley, 19, a sophomore.
It is also a culture that has glorified being busy — or at the very least conflates those things with status. “There’s this idea that I’m not worthy if I’m not stressed and overwhelmed,” said Stacey Steinbach, a residential life coordinator at Smith. “And in some sense to not be stressed is a failing.”
It’s what Ms. Simmons calls “competitive stress”: the subject of her afternoon workshop on the campus lawn, to which she was luring students with ice cream and bingo.
When students arrived, the sundaes were there. But the bingo cards were a little different — filled with things like “I have 20 pages to write tonight,” “I’m too busy to eat” and “I’m so dead.” It was called “Stress Olympics.”
“It’s basically a play on competitive suffering,” said Casey Hecox, a 20-year-old junior. “It’s when we’re like, ‘I have three tests tomorrow.’ And then someone’s like, ‘I have five tests tomorrow, and all I’ve eaten is 5-hour Energy, and my dog is sick.’”
With only a few weeks before school was to let out, the stress pinwheel over summer internships and jobs — applications, recommendations, networking — was already at a steady buzz. What if they didn’t get one? Or the right one? “I’m not used to the whole ‘summer job’ concept, and I found the process quite intimidating,” said Ms. Mosiah, 21, a sophomore. “I had to ask for help from my friends and the on-campus resources to work through this. I’m not used to asking for help or being rejected this often, so I was really taken aback.”
Ms. Lancaster said, “Sometimes it’s hard not to take each and every rejection letter as a failure, but I’m trying to stay positive.”
Whatever happens, there will be plenty of time to talk about it when students return to campus in the fall.
Correction: July 2, 2017
An article last Sunday about colleges that offer courses in embracing failure misidentified the position that Amy Jordan holds at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication, not for the entire university.