Are schools "shortchanging girls"? Reading the entire AAUW report, it's hard to say. "There is considerable evidence that girls earn higher grades than boys throughout their school careers," the report acknowledges. And the sexes seem to be approaching parity in skills. Recent research indicates that "sex differences in verbal abilities have decreased markedly.... [and] differences in mathematics achievement are small and declining." Findings regarding achievement in science, however, are discouraging: girls are not catching up to boys and may even be falling further behind. Both sexes tend to lose interest in math and science as they proceed through school, but the loss is more pronounced for girls. Girls also exhibit less confidence in their mathematical abilities than boys, although it's worth remembering that girls are generally socialized to be relatively self-effacing; boys are expected to brag.
These differences in social conditioning complicate the task of measuring girls' relative self-esteem. The AAUW study suggests that high school girls have less self-esteem than boys and that the self-esteem of girls declines dramatically after puberty. How did researchers measure self-esteem? They counted the number of elementary school and high school students who reported being "happy the way I am." Sixty-nine percent of elementary school boys and 60 percent of elementary school girls declared that they were indeed happy with themselves. But among high school students 46 percent of boys were "happy the way I am," and a mere 29 percent of girls.
It's impossible to know what this survey means. Maybe it is evidence that girls have low self-esteem, as the AAUW report suggests. Or maybe it demonstrates that girls are less complacent and more ambitious than boys, and more likely to hold themselves to high standards of performance. Maybe boys are in a rut. Maybe not. By itself, Are you happy with yourself? is a useless survey question, because interpretations of the answer are hopelessly subjective.
What additional evidence is there to support the common assumption that girls are more likely to suffer a drop in self-esteem as they enter their teens? The AAUW report cites recent work, by Carol Gilligan, Lyn Mikel Brown, and Annie Rogers, documenting "the silencing of girls" in junior high and high school. But even if their findings on a loss of confidence in girls are accurate, these tell us very little about sexism or sex difference, because they offer no comparable study of boys. Maybe a loss of self-esteem is a function of adolescence, not of sex. Maybe boys are silenced too, metaphorically if not in fact. Maybe they make noise to drown out their fears. Maybe not.