How youth mentorship fosters confidence in Canadian women

Experts say having a mentor at a young age who improves an individual’s confidence has a number of positive life outcomes -- this is particularly true for girls. AP Photo

TORONTO – A new report finds that although youth mentorship helps build confidence in adulthood, less than half of Canadians had a mentor in their younger years.

“Building confidence doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a life-long process that begins at an early age,” said Beth Malcolm, director of the Girls’ Fund at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “For girls, having a positive mentor in their lives, who offers non-judgemental support and helps them identify their unique strengths, is key to building their confidence as they grow up.”

According to the study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 63 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they think that young girls look up to movie stars and pop stars the most. Meanwhile, only two per cent think girls look up to scientists and only six per cent think writers/authors are seen as mentors for young children.

“We are not saying that all pop-culture celebrities cannot be role models, but we have to acknowledge that the dominant message girls receive from the media is that their looks matter most, being sexy is more important than being smart and that positions of power and influence are intended for men,” said Samantha Cochrane, manager of Girls’ Mentoring at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “This is not to suggest girls cannot strive to be singers or actresses but we are emphasizing the benefits and learning gained from having a connection with a strong female role model where they can challenge these stereotypes and see their limitless potential.”

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Cochrane said that through these mentoring relationships, girls gain confidence as they see strong female leaders and aim to hone their talents to outside of what media or society is telling them to be.

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“Whether it’s a scientist, a teacher, a CEO or an actress, we want every girl to have the opportunity to connect with a role model who can guide them to realize their talents, accept themselves, be bold in their goal setting and dream big,” said Cochrane. “It is also very important that this relationship is a two-way conversation and idolizing pop-culture celebrities typically doesn’t offer that option.”

Why helping build confidence matters

The Canadian Women’s Foundation says the term “mentor” has many different definitions and can happen formally and informally. A mentor is someone who models a positive lifestyle and guides those they work with to “identify their unique strengths, build confidence, navigate life’s challenges and dream big.”

“Sometimes the ‘perfect mentor’ is an older girl who can help the younger mentee work through peer pressure; other times it might be a supportive adult or an elder from the community who can teach about their cultural history and tradition,” said  Cochrane. “A mentor can also be a friend or family member that you can turn to and seek advice and support from.”

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Experts say the effect of having a mentor at a young age who improves an individual’s confidence has a number of positive life outcomes. The report says this is particularly true for girls.

“Confident girls are more likely to speak out against bullying, and to tell an adult if they experience sexual harassment or assault,” reads the report. “One of the main reasons girls lack confidence is the constant exposure to highly sexualized images of women in media. Research shows this onslaught causes girls to be highly critical of their bodies, undermining their confidence and increasing feelings of shame, anxiety and self-disgust.”

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Cochrane said a mentor can help girls move into confidence by not only modeling a positive lifestyle, but also encouraging and believing in them.

“A mentor becomes that someone a girl can openly discuss their life challenges with, that person who encourages positive choices,” she said.

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According to the report, girls who are confident in their own abilities and their ability to learn and meet challenges are more likely to explore careers that don’t fit the traditional idea of “women’s work.”

“Research shows that girls chronically underestimate their math abilities and tend to drop out of higher level mathematics in high school,” say the findings. “Building their confidence will help girls know they can succeed in all careers, including science, technology, engineering and math.”

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According to Statistics Canada, over her lifetime, the average woman will earn about 65 per cent of the wages of the average man—only $519,600 compared to $803,000.

“It takes confidence to ask for a raise, take on leadership, and advocate for fair workplace policies—all of which can boost your lifetime earnings,” says Cochrane. “A mentor during the years as a youth can help girls navigate life challenges and guide them to see their talents and skills and potential.”

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