Study finds tenuous link between gender and self esteem

July 21, 1999

MADISON - Popular assumptions about a cavernous self-esteem gender gap may be greatly exaggerated, according to a new analysis of nearly 150,000 respondents by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologists.

The UW-Madison study, led by professor Janet Shibley Hyde and researcher Kristen Kling, consisted of an analysis of hundreds of self-esteem studies done since 1987. The conclusion: Males have only slightly higher levels of self-esteem than females across most ages.

Hyde says the results certainly took the group by surprise. The popular media is teeming with best-selling books and articles about "girls' self-esteem robbery" and "the self-esteem confidence gap." Hyde says the prevailing view in psychology has been that girls are having their self-esteem systematically destroyed by sexism, harassment and stifling stereotypes.

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin, did find that males scored higher on standard measures of self-esteem than females, but the difference was small. The largest gender difference occurred in late adolescence, or high school age, but Hyde says it was not large enough to suggest that self-esteem problems are rooted in gender.

"I think a lot of very well-intentioned people believe that girls have serious self-esteem problems, particularly in adolescence," Hyde says. "But we may create a self-fulfilling prophecy for girls by telling them they'll have low self esteem."

Self-esteem has been a hot research topic in psychology circles. It is most commonly measured through a standardized test called the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which gauges responses to statements such as "on the whole, I am satisfied with myself" or "I feel I am a person of worth on an equal plane with others."

It is considered to be an essential ingredient in mental health, and low self-esteem has strong correlations with depression, low achievement and poor social adjustment, Hyde says. However, the issue raises a "chicken and egg" question about whether the low self-esteem causes or is a symptom of these other problems.

Researchers used two different strategies to examine self-esteem differences. The first was a computerized literature search of studies based on esteem, and the second focused on large, nationwide samples gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Using a numerical scale, the researchers plotted gender differences in self- esteem among different age groups. (For example, a score of 0.80 would show boys scored much higher than girls, 0.50 would be moderately higher, and 0.20 would be slightly higher. Zero would be no difference.) In ages 7-10, the difference was 0.16; ages 11-14 scored 0.23; ages 15-18 scored 0.33; ages 19-22 scored 0.18; and ages 23-59 scored 0.10.

The overall difference in the first analysis was 0.21, a small difference favoring males.

"The small size of the gender difference suggests that males and females are more similar than they are different when it comes to measures of self-esteem," says Kling, now a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Given the implication that boys do not have self-esteem problems, the subject may receive less attention than it deserves for males, Kling says.

Why is society assuming the worst about self-esteem and girls? Hyde suggests that popular books such as psychologist Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia" are filled with horror stories about eroded self-esteem in girls, but are drawn mostly from a psychotherapy setting and may not provide an accurate snapshot of the total population.

Another study in the early 1990s by the American Association of University Women suggested that girls' self-esteem plummets at adolescence and never recovers. This analysis challenges that finding, and even suggests that self-esteem for both males and females gradually improves with age.

There may be more inherent dangers in claiming that gender and self-esteem are connected. "If parents believe that their daughters have lower self-esteem than their sons, they may behave in ways that telegraph this message to their children," according to the study.
Brian Mattmiller, 608-262-9772 CONTACT:
Janet Shibley Hyde, 608-262-9522,
Kristen Kling, 612-626-9134,

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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