Photo: r.nial bradshaw
Gender stereotypes prevent girls from embarking on careers previously associated with men, like sport and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths), according to recent studies.
What is a gender stereotype?
Gender stereotypes are fixed ideas about men and women’s skills and characteristics and how they should behave. Common gender stereotypes are that cleaning and cooking are ‘women’s jobs’ and that men are good at maths.
These are incorrect and unhealthy as they can narrow a child’s ideas about what they can be when they grow up.
- Currently only 17% of the UK’s tech workforce is female and over the last 10 years this has been dropping by 0.5% each year. 1
- Girls still worry about what others might think if they take up a subject like D&T or IT and they often fear sexist comments or rejection in the work-place due to gender. 2
- Girls start to drop out of sport and physical activity from age 7 at a faster rate than boys.3 A recent study investigated reasons for this and found that from the ages of 7-8, gender stereotypes are already appearing at school, with comments such as ‘girls aren’t as good at sport as boys.’ These negative perceptions of women are off-putting for girls who would otherwise like to be involved, and contribute to lowered participation in sport later on. 4
Biological differences between the sexes do not cause girls or boys to do well or badly in different subjects, so the explanation must be a cultural one.
Young children are likely to accept what they are told as truth as they lack the adult ability to question and analyse a statement. That means that being exposed to sexist attitudes and gender stereotypes early on can have a profound and restrictive effect on children.5
But, the good news is that sexist behaviour and comments that would have gone unnoticed before are now being challenged. People are spreading the idea that traditional perceptions of gender can restrict young people.
What can you do?
Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society, so it’s impossible to protect your child completely from them. But you can make them aware that they exist and that they’re inaccurate.
- Adjust what you say - be aware that comments you make about girls ‘looking very pretty’ and boys ‘growing to be big and strong’ can make children believe that their other characteristics are less important.
- Try to make small changes to how you separate the sexes – say ‘children’ rather than ‘girls and boys’.
- If your child makes stereotypical comments, challenge them. Explain why they are inappropriate.
- Don’t judge any of their ideas about what they might like to do and be when they’re older: be encouraging and supportive.
- Praise her for what she does and who she is, not just her looks. Make sure she knows that a girl’s worth is truly measured by her personality and skills, not by her prettiness.
- Encourage her to play with games and toys that are gender neutral (for both boys and girls).
As a parent, it’s important to help keep your daughter’s mind open to all opportunities, regardless of gender. Helping her to see past stereotypes from a young age can help ensure that your daughter grows up happy and unrestricted by pressures to conform to an old-fashioned view of what girls ‘should’ do.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has several useful resources including an article and report entitled Stereotypes stop you doing stuff https://www.teachers.org.uk/educationandequalities/breakingthemould
Let Toys Be Toys campaign is asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/
Changing the game for girls Report showing girls’participation in sport http://www.wsff.org.uk/system/1/assets/files/000/000/285/285/f4894dccf/original/Changing_The_Game_For_Girls_Final.pdf
For more information on how media stereotypes affect girls, see our article, Why media images can ruin girls' lives.