It’s the year 2017, and young girls don’t think that women are as smart as men.
Yes, you read that correctly, but it bears repeating: Young girls don’t think that women are as smart as men.
You can find this information from new research published in the journal Science. The study looked at why more women don’t pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which are associated with “brilliance.” The other big and disturbing revelation? The belief that men are smarter than women starts in girls as young as age 6.
While the study didn’t include the reasons for this attitude, there seemed to be a big shift between ages 5 and 6. At 5, the girls being studied thought they could do anything boys could do, but at age 6, they tended to think that boys (and adult men) were smarter, and they started shying away from activities and games intended for the “really, really smart.”
Mind you, research suggests that girls actually tend to do better than boys in school, including in math and science classes. More women graduate from college than men. And women have made countless contributions in STEM fields. This is 2017 and we know that gender stereotyping is nonsense.
Needless to say, I find this upsetting not only as a woman but also as the mother of a girl.
So, what can we do to counteract this? A lot, actually, and we need to start doing it right away. For one, we need to do away with the notion that “feminism” is a dirty word. Last I checked, it represented equality for both women and men. You want to raise your daughter to be an unapologetic feminist? You go right on ahead. Here are seven ways to make sure our girls know just how smart they are and that they can stand toe-to-toe with any boy out there.
- Make sure your praise doesn’t only focus on your daughter’s appearance. Little girls are beautiful and gorgeous and adorable. It’s a fact. But it’s also a problem if that’s the only way you’re referring to them. Since my daughter was born, I’ve told her all of that, but I’ve also always been vigilant about adding other attributes to my litany of adulation — adjectives like smart, clever, kind, and strong. She is a woman, and she is all of those things. I don’t want her to ever question that. As she gets older, I will also make sure to tell her (explicitly and repeatedly) that she can do anything that her male peers can do. I will encourage her to break all of the glass ceilings in her way.
- Watch your own gender bias. Our words make a deep impact on our children, even when we’re saying them without much thought. You may not think it’s a big deal to refer to a doctor — or mathematician, engineer, or astronaut — you’ve never met (and whose gender you don’t actually know) as a man, but you will unintentionally convey the idea that men are more likely to hold that profession. I’m really sensitive to this issue, and I still find myself falling into this trap. Funny enough, I tend to be much more egalitarian when I talk about scientists. The reason is simple: My best friend is an immunologist, so I think about her when I think about scientists. Which brings me to my next point …
- Read about female pioneers in “brilliant” fields. Building on the idea above, the more familiar you are with a concept, the more normal and mundane it will seem to you. Now, don’t get me wrong: The women you’ll be discussing are amazing, but the more you talk about them and learn about them, the very idea that they exist won’t seem strange or extraordinary. Each of their chosen professions is just one more thing women can do — one more thing your daughter can do. Check out Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, which regularly highlights women we should have read about in our history books but never did, as well as A Mighty Girl, which features wonderful biographical book recommendations for children of all ages.
- Make sure that girls are represented appropriately in the toys you give your kids. Just as it’s important for girls to see themselves represented in the real world, it’s also important for them to see themselves represented in their play. It may seem silly on the surface, but it’s essential: Playing with toys is the way that children figure out and understand the world around them. Sadly, it’s not always easy to find these toys, but they do exist. Here are some ideas:
- Encourage, engage in, and get excited about STEM activities. Talk will only get our girls so far. Hands-on action is the way to go if you truly want to increase your daughter’s comfort level with these subjects and stimulate her intellect. For starters, check out extracurricular STEM and STEAM classes in your area. STEAM classes include an art and design component. Also, do science experiments, brain teasing puzzles, and math games at home. A great resource is the magazine Kazoo, which is geared toward girls as young as 5 (and up to 10). It features all of that as well as inspiring stories of women at the top of their fields.
- Value fearlessness, independence, and boldness. In today’s society, there’s a pervasive message that boys should be loud and strong, while girls should be quiet and “good.” To hell with that. By encouraging girls to be themselves and to embrace their wild sides, we can teach them to be confident. (Note: As parents, we should be teaching children of both genders to be polite and empathetic. That’s not what I’m talking about here.) Be careful not to quash girls’ natural impulses, their natural curiosity, and their natural desire to speak up.
- Moms, don’t talk in self-deprecating terms about yourself. It is amazing how much negativity we can accidentally exude on a daily basis. We do it with our appearances (“I look fat in this”) and with our emotions (“I’m so stupid, why did I do that?”). But, depending on our backgrounds, we can also do it with STEM-related fields (“I’m so bad at math, but your dad has always been good at it”). We are our daughters’ biggest role models, and if we talk about ourselves in a way that diminishes our intellect, we’re doing our children a huge disservice. So, be kind and complimentary when speaking about yourself, and you will be helping your daughter in immeasurable ways.
My daughter is 18 months old and a force of nature. She is inquisitive, whip smart, excited to learn, and opinionated in the most wonderful ways possible (and in some not-so-wonderful ways, too — she is a toddler, after all). She’s a special kid, for sure, but now that I’ve been spending a lot of time with the 5 and under set, I’ve realized just how many girls fit that description. It’s pretty much all of them.
The thing I’ve come to realize is this: Girls have a natural desire to learn about everything, but it’s conditioned out of them at a ridiculously early age. Society tells them in a variety of ways that these pursuits are too hard for them and too unladylike. There’s a lot we can do as role models and caretakers to ensure our girls will grow up feeling and knowing they are equals to their male counterparts. There is nothing boys can do that girls can’t. We just need to make sure both girls and boys know this without a doubt.
How do you make sure your daughter knows she’s just as as awesome as any boy out there?
Dawn Yanek lives in New York City with her husband and their two very sweet, slightly crazy kids. Before becoming a mom, she was a magazine editor who regularly appeared on TV to discuss celebrity news, fashion, relationships, and pop culture. These days, she writes about the very real, relatable, and practical sides of parenting at momsanity.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.