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Learning aspirations, motivations and frustrations – why we shouldn’t tell tell girls to be ‘nice’

Holly Smale dissects why the passivity and ‘niceness’ that girls often grow into is no substitute for the sense of purpose and ambition many feel compelled to leave behind...

  • Learning aspirations, motivations and frustrations – why we shouldn’t tell tell girls to be ‘nice’

I wasn’t always a ‘nice’ girl.

As a child, I was known for being outspoken, obstinate and ambitious. “I don’t care what I am when I grow up,” I announced, just before I started primary school. “As long as I’m the best at it in the whole world.”

In class, I enjoyed winning – literally anything, it didn’t matter, as long as I could compete, triumph and be rewarded. I took great pleasure in leading, or as the frequent accusations put it, ‘being bossy’. My hand was always up. I collected gold stickers. Any chance to debate made me giddy, and my achievements were legion. I had so many Brownie badges they had to get me a second sash so I could keep going.

In essence, I was a natural ‘Type A’ child – goal-orientated, competitive, results-driven and impatient. Sure, it didn’t always make me popular (I corrected a teacher more than once) but occasional resistance from others didn’t daunt me. My enthusiasm for learning knew no bounds because I had been taught that my opinion was relevant, my thoughts had value and that even if I got things wrong, it wasn’t the end of the world.

That all changed when I hit secondary school.

Starting to lose

Within a few weeks, I’d established that pushing myself forward resulted in relentless jeers, mockery, vicious insults and zero party invites. If I beat the boys, they said I was ugly. If I got the right answer, I was a ‘geek’ and a ‘suck-up’; if I was wrong, I was dumb and the taunting of my peers knew no bounds. Teachers would turn a blind eye, or just as often roll them at my boundless enthusiasm.

Almost overnight, my eagerness for competition disappeared. I began to associate debate with confrontation, success with humiliation and achievement with unpopularity and unhappiness.

So I learnt quickly. Within a couple of months, I started to lose. I lowered my grades, getting questions deliberately wrong in order to drop my A* to a less threatening B. My hand no longer went up in class; I’d hunch over and attempt to disappear. Instead of leading a group, I’d stay quiet and do as I was told.

As my body language and behaviour began to change, so did my voice, both metaphorically and literally. It became softer, more hesitant. I developed a stutter that I still struggle with, decades later. I began to apologise for everything. To agree with everyone. In a very short time, I lost all confidence in my skills, my intelligence and my value.

Agreeing with everybody

I’m by no means alone in this. Studies have shown that boys are much more likely to speak up in class, even if they haven’t been asked to and don’t know the answer. Girls are statistically overlooked or ignored in mixed-gender groups, frequently downplaying their abilities to be more ‘likeable’. Teachers have even been shown to interact up to 30% cent more with male students, simply because they’re more assertive.

With all my confidence stripped away, what was I left with? Niceness. The passivity of trying to be as inoffensive as possible. To keep everyone happy – and myself less miserable – I flattened myself, my voice and my talents. I tried to make myself ‘sweet’ and ‘likeable’ by upsetting nobody and by agreeing with everybody. In the space of a few short years, I’d gone from being a fearless, gold-stickered leader of infinite Brownie Badges to an insipid people pleaser, because being seen meant being shot at.  By the time I was 11, I’d essentially learnt that I needed to fail if I wanted to be a success.

It would be nice to think these lessons are limited to childhood, and that they disappear with the advent of adulthood, but it’s not true. Statistics relating to gender in the workplace suggest that these lessons girls learn at school follow us through life.

Women are less likely to go for promotions or higher-paid jobs. They’re less likely to interview for jobs they’re not qualified for, whereas men will typically ‘give it a bash’, regardless. They’re less likely to speak up for themselves in meetings, and their emails are more likely to contain ‘passive’ language and apologies.

Shut up, look pretty

There are no boundaries to these learnt behaviours, and so they spiral outwards – influencing a person’s mental health, relationships and friendships. Girls will frequently find themselves attempting to be as ‘agreeable’ and ‘perfect’ as possible so they’re accepted by boyfriends, on social media and by their mates. Adult women who are fierce and competent will frequently ‘dumb themselves down’, or agree with partners simply to avoid rejection or make life easier.

Culturally, these old messages remain powerful. Things may be starting to change, but thousands of years of women being told to shut up, look pretty and let the boys get on with it aren’t going to be undone in a couple of generations. Consider the negative and gendered language we use to refer to women who consciously adopt ‘Type A’ or ‘Alpha Roles’: ‘bossy’, ‘uptight’, ‘high-maintenance’, ‘shrill’, ‘ball-busting’, ‘stroppy,’ ‘needy’.

If we want our women to succeed, we have to start with our girls. It took me years to undo the messages I learnt at school, and decades to realise that I was allowed to create and compete – and win – without feeling ashamed or repulsive as a result.

Honestly, I still struggle. Like most high-achieving women I know, I still find my successes embarrassing and frequently downplay them more often than I should; apologising for doing well, pretending they’re ‘nothing’ or that I was simply ‘lucky’.

Hungry for the world

As educators and influencers, we must monitor this divide carefully and do our utmost to address it when we see it. We need to encourage girls to speak up and get things wrong. We should sometimes urge them to be less likeable, less agreeable, and put their own needs above those of others. To perhaps be occasionally ‘selfish’, rather than ‘thoughtful’, ‘arrogant’ rather than ‘humble’ and to push forwards, instead of always blending in.

We should monitor the everyday language we use for girls and boys, ensuring that behaviour seen as ‘commanding’ and ‘dynamic’ in boys isn’t seen as ‘controlling’ and ‘cold-blooded’ in girls. This is just as important for boys as it is for girls, because if a cultural shift is to happen, it needs to come from them too.

‘Niceness’ is neither a goal nor an achievement. Compassion, empathy, kindness – these are active nouns that come from a place of strength. But statistically, suppressing your own needs to keep others happy, and downplaying your achievements and skills so as not to make any waves, is a predominantly female pattern; one that needs to be stamped out before it reaches adulthood.

Teach girls to take up space, and they will. Give them their own boundaries and they’ll expand, lead and be heard. Encourage teenage girls to be loud, confident, funny, ambitious, proud and hungry for the world, and there’s nothing that will stop them. They’ll carry that sense of power and entitlement with them for the rest of their lives.

Just, please, never tell a girl to be ‘nice’.

Holly Smale is the multi-million selling, award-winning author of the Geek Girl and The Valentines series of books. She has an MA in Shakespeare and gender, and has taught both English and creative writing; her new novel, Far From Perfect, is out now (HarperCollins, £7.99)

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