There’s going to be a lot of talk about mental health today, and that’s good. You can only resolve a problem when you identify it; and you can only identify it when you use the right words for it.
So today I want to talk about the enormous problem of mental health as yet unidentified because we keep using the wrong word for it. And that’s the problem with women and confidence.
To read a selection of articles on the internet, you’d think the only thing holding women back is their own inability to step forward, to Lean In, to shout about their worth. It’s a convenient way to dismiss the stark inequality we see across workplaces and homes – the lack of female decision-makers and leaders versus crowded numbers of women living in poverty and furthest from power.
There’s an industry of self-help built around this “confidence gap” lie. Society has swallowed it whole. Women can train themselves to ask better for a pay rise, take courses in growing a thicker skin, and perfect a myriad of hobbies and talents from clean eating to mindfulness in order to overcome their personal failings.
But today, Young Women’s Trust is publishing numbers that reveal the stark truth behind this alleged confidence gap. Our research shows that 60% of young women on low or no pay are worried about their mental health; and 64% of them identify sexism as a major problem in the UK.
Don’t talk to me any more about how women simply lack confidence. The fact that so many young women, feeling so knocked about and sad, can keep going and keep trying, is testament to their extraordinariness.
In other words: it’s not women that are the problem. And a lack of confidence is not the issue that women are grappling with. The truth is that when you live and try to thrive in surroundings that repeatedly tell you that you are not of value, that you are inherently lacking, that pay you less, that threaten you and limit you – well, it makes you ill.
Our findings showed that, overall, 51% of the young women surveyed were worried about their mental health. Our research showed that young women are more likely than young men to report that poor mental health affects their work, finances and relationships. And our research showed the vicious circle this creates: one in five young women say their mental health affects their ability to stay in work, while one in three young women say their mental health affected their ability to seek work. Meanwhile 54% said that mental health affected their ability to maintain friendships and relationships, the vital support network we all need to make our way in the world.
These findings are so striking that we are now undertaking deeper research in collaboration with UCL, which recently found that women who experience sexism are more likely to be younger and three times more likely to experience depression.
So don’t talk to me any more about how women simply lack confidence. The fact that so many young women, feeling so knocked about and sad, can keep going and keep trying, is testament to their extraordinariness.
Let’s be clear. This is a public health crisis that is having a huge effect on the UK as a whole. When such an important section of the population is prevented from thriving and contributing, we are all held back. Valuing and investing in young women, their talents and their contributions is in everyone’s interest.
Women make choices in a context. It’s time to fix the context, instead of fixing the women.
Sophie Walker is CEO of Young Women’s Trust.