Raising empowered girls starts from babyhood Image Credit: Shutterstock

Starting from the age of six years old, girls stop believing they can be in a role that requires ‘brilliance’ –jobs like being a president, a scientist or CEO - according to New York University research.

Girls are also three times less likely to be given science-related toys, according to the Institute of Engineering and Technology, while parents are twice as likely to Google ‘is my son gifted?’ than ‘is my daughter gifted?’

These are all the tell-tale signs of what Barbie doll makers Mattel call the ‘Dream Gap’.

Their virtual roundtable on the importance of female role models ahead of International Women’s Day in March 2021 saw representatives from UN Women, the European Space Agency and many more discussing this gap, and how it is holding girls and women back even now, in the 21st century.

While Mattel has sought to help close this gap with its Career and Inspiring Women ranges of Barbie dolls - which see women from Rosa Parks to Maya Angelou depicted in doll form – toys are just one part of how parents can help to widen girls’ horizons.

“The preschool years are a critical period in which to deal with gender stereotypes,” says Adam Zargar, Executive Director of Executive Director of Coaching & Leading Child Coach (uaecoaching.com).

“Skills, personality choices, limiting decisions and negative emotions are formed in the imprint period of up to seven years old. What children see and hear will play out within their automated mind – as if they’re on autopilot – and the effects of long-term gender bias become most apparent during adolescence.”

Not just about girls

While empowering girls and women is vitally important, it addresses just half the issue.

“Gender equality isn’t just about girls, it’s about boys too,” said Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide (https://www.goodplayguide.com/).

“It’s not just about how they see women, but also how they see themselves. Boys are often portrayed as aggressive and can feel pressured to be strong and rough. This often means they aren’t encouraged to express their feelings – not because they don’t have them, but because they don’t want to appear to be weak.”

Imagine for a second that the slate was wiped clean and we’re off to head up a new colony on Mars. We outline some of the changes we could make to raise our children to see beyond gender.

Avoid overtly sexist clothing

When kids are young, the stories we read, clothing we choose and toys we buy them can have a marked impact on their perceptions of gender. Many retailers have come under fire for clothing design that missed the mark in the past for instance. Gap was previously criticised for stereotyping boys as “thinkers” and girls as “social butterflies” with its graphic tees; Target made headlines thanks to a navy onesie with ‘Future President’ emblazoned across the front (although the company later stated the item was unisex); while the social media hashtag #PocketsForGirls highlights the need for little girls to have practical clothing that encourages movement, too. The point is, we’re getting more clued up about the messages we send our children.

While you don’t need to dress your girl in boys’ clothes or vice versa, be mindful of the messaging on your child’s clothes – whether they are overt typographical messages, or implicit in the lack of pockets or restriction of movement.

Offer different types of toys

“There is a bit of a debate over whether the environment a child grows up in creates perception of gender, or whether it is down to biology, but researchers think that it’s a bit of both,” said Dr Gummer. “The most important thing is that children get a choice in what they play with, read, watch, or wear and aren’t forced either into their gender stereotype or to deliberately try to make a statement against stereotypes. If your son wants a pink princess castle, go for it. Equally, if he wants to play with trucks, that’s absolutely fine too.”

Creating a gender-neutral environment can help enforce this, although it’s better to provide children with the confidence to decide for themselves.

“You cannot control everything your child is exposed to, so the aim is to find a healthy balance,” says Rania Laing, founder and CEO of Your Neuro Coach LLC (yourneurocoach) and Purposeful Innovators (purposefulinnovators.org). “Maintaining a good mix of different toys and following your child’s cues on what they enjoy playing with is a healthy way to encourage an open-minded attitude about gender. The goal is encouraging inclusivity of choice, rather than polarizing one way or another.”

Encourage kids to recognise stereotypes

“Rather than eliminating all books with stereotypes, we can guide children to recognise stereotypes and increase independent critical thinking about gender and perceptions of gender,” agrees Zargar. “Making a concerted effort to provide positive, empowered stories and images of diverse characters will activate positive self-concepts for children and promote anti-bias attitudes.”

If your kids watch television, make sure they have access to programmes that show genders in more than one light. It can also help to seek out gender positive books such as Sleeping Handsome and The Princess Engineer (News From Nowhere), I Could Be, You Could Be (Karen Owen and Barroux) and the Girls are Not Chicks Coloring Book (from Bookmarks). This will encourage children to see both genders represented in a well-rounded way in fiction.

Be aware of the language you use

As children develop their talents, the ways in which we encourage them can leave a mark. An often-cited piece of research by Doris Yee at the University of Michigan demonstrated that parents and teachers of teenagers assume that when children do well in subjects such as mathematics, boys are labelled as “naturally talented” whereas girls are praised because they’ve “tried hard”. Using language such as this, even if it’s a slip of the tongue, plays a huge part in the way youngsters see themselves. As such, reassessing our choice of wording can make a positive contribution to their development.

“The hidden messages that girls receive about maths, science and technology shape their self-concept, confidence and interest in those subjects,” says Zargar. “These messages can come from bias in the media, from family, or teachers who may exhibit lower expectations for females in these subject areas. Skilled teachers encourage cross-gender activities and play. They can also positively reinforce children who are playing with non-stereotyped toys by talking with them and supporting their learning.”

Check your own unconscious bias

Beyond the classroom, we also have to be mindful of the way we describe certain characteristics and roles in society.

“Without intention, we can find ourselves giving our children stereotypical messages about gender and influencing their belief systems,” says Your Nero Coach’s Laing. “For example, describing the colour pink as 'too girlie', or instinctively accusing another driver that cuts you up as a 'typical woman driver' can seem harmless at the time, but children will process these in their subconscious as facts, without realising.”

“There are some really simple slip-ups like saying ‘fireman’ instead of ‘firefighter’, ‘policeman’ instead of ‘police officer’ that we can try to change in everyday language,” agrees Dr Gummer. “For instance, a girl might be described as ‘bossy’ because she wants to be in charge, but a boy would be expected to take charge. When you talk to children, try to think of them as an individual, not just a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’.”

Shift away from appearance for girls

Boys are slightly more likely to be overweight than girls, but parents worry more about their daughters being overweight, according to research by data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. He found that for every 10 inquiries about sons being overweight, there were 17 about daughters. And there were three times as many inquiries about whether a daughter is “ugly” than for a son.

This is of course in part because parents worry their daughters will be judged more on their appearance than their sons. But the only way to stop this is from the beginning, with the way that we judge our daughters ourselves. Do you compliment your little girl for her pretty dress or looking cute? Could you praise her for a skill or behaviour instead?

Similarly, the way you rate your own appearance will filter down to her: “What we say about ourselves become the beliefs that our children will adopt for themselves,” says Your Neuro Coach’s Rania Laing. “So, if you always put yourself down for not being intelligent enough, or your body shame, the chances are your daughter, who is role modeling you, will inherit your belief. Be conscious of words said in jest, create language rules that make it easy to tell others that certain words like 'fat' are not allowed in your family and be conscious to explain the intention and meaning of words that are heard so your child gets the context and can discern the relevance.”

Offer a variety of influences

As children grow older, the quality of their experiences will shape them into adulthood.

“Older children can grasp more complex issues so it can be a good idea to discuss gender equality with them directly,” says Amanda. “It’s also important for parents not to push their own assumptions, for example letting children choose their own extra-curricular activities, instead of signing up their son for football or their daughter for dancing.”

When it comes to helping children reach their full potential in the workplace there is a lot of ground to make up – did you know, for instance, that FTSE 100 CEOs are more likely to be called Stephen, or Steve, than they are to be a woman?

“Teenagers who haven’t seen female scientists, or male hairdressers, might not even consider this as a potential career path for themselves,” says Dr Gummer.

“There are role models are out there, however, so look around for online videos or television programmes to inspire young people to pursue whatever occupation they want to.”

Perhaps the best thing parents can do is remain open-minded and open to discussion.

“When talking through career choices never place limits – both boys and girls can be engineers or nurses, for instance,” says Zargar. “Concentrate discussions on skills, personality qualities instead of job stereotypes. Offer them lessons on famous people who have broken the barriers of gender stereotypes.”

Be a positive role model

Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or the breadwinner of the family, you can leverage your position as a positive role model for kids.

“Parents should role play by, for instance, talking to boys about ways to talk to women,” says Zargar. “Demonstrate manners and teach respect. Husbands can also model this with their spouse as it is often not the way we say things but the congruence with the body language and physical actions that kids can see and model.”

At home, make sure roles are balances and chores are divided so children see it’s not just one person’s responsibility. “Share household chores and make sure boys and girls know the meaning of money,” says Zargar.

“Don’t highlight limits in the workplace but explain they can get what they want with the right work ethic, morals and belief, regardless of their role or gender.”

Getting it right every time isn’t easy and gender equality can feel like a minefield at times. But even the smallest change can make a big difference.

“Whatever age your child is, they will be influenced by the things you say and do,” says Dr Gummer.

“Avoid negative comments about gender equality at home but if you do say something that perhaps you shouldn’t have, use it as a learning opportunity and explain to your child why it might have been wrong. This will go a long way to reinforcing a positive attitude towards gender equality.”