1980s Dundee: girls and confidence

A list of things said around me, and probably most other girls growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s Scotland:

  • Stop showing off
  • Little girls who ask, don’t get
  • Don’t talk back
  • Adults are talking
  • No one likes a show-off
  • Who does she think she is?
  • They’re full of themselves
  • If they were a bar of chocolate, they’d eat themselves
  • (Sarcastically) I love me, who do you love?
  • Good girls are quiet
  • Oh she loves herself (that was NOT a compliment)

The background setting to this time was a struggling city and hard times for people. Mills had been gone for decades, the Timex workers were on strike and the Levis factory would go soon too, followed by NCR. Manufacturing was declining, we were pre-New Labour and jobs were hard to come by. Dundee is a resilient city. I am proud of its social innovations and currently, its ambitions. Back in the 1980s it was having some bad luck. There was something in the water, it certainly wasn’t confidence.

I learned that, to be accepted, you did not speak up. You did not get ideas above your station. You did not go first. You did not put your hand up. You did not, under any circumstances, stand out. Confidence was not an asset. It was to be avoided. It was confused for arrogance. Instead of trying something and giving it your best shot you avoided it altogether for fear that it went wrong, or worse, someone noticed you. Growth Mindset had not been invented yet. At least, not in Dundee. The closest I came to role models of confident, working-class women who were comfortable with themselves were the models in my Granny’s Kays catalogue.

Yet, something inside me dared me to try. It might have been the influence of Doris Day’s, ‘Calamity Jane’, my books about the suffragettes or the plucky heroines of favourite childhood novels; but I felt, somehow, that I should tentatively raise my hand in the air and ‘admit knowledge’. This became what I was ‘known’ for – academic performance. Education would be my pathway to environments where I could more freely express myself without fear of rebuttal. Whatever the inspiration was, and it probably was fictional or historical, I am wholeheartedly thankful for it.

We cannot be what we cannot see. Our children need good role models. I would prefer that they were not fictional or two-dimensional. This is why it is so important that we do show confidence, we do speak up and we show that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute. This is why we must show girls how to lead. The current talent pool is lacking their brilliance. We do not have time to wait for them to unlearn all the unhelpful messages we give them.

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