Boys like cars and girls like fluffy toys, right? How many of us played with things because they were given to us… but secretly hankered over our brother or sister’s toy. I know I did.
One Christmas I received a sewing box and my little brother got the most awesome remote control car. I was jealous. But then I became confused when told: “girls like sewing and dolls and boys like guns and cars…”. No matter how I tried, I could not bring myself to like sewing or dolls – was there something wrong with me? Don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming my Christmas presents for my prolonged decision-making time, deciding what to do with my life. But what if many (or even just a few) children are put off something they are good at in order to fulfil societies and peer groups expectations of them?
In 2018, girls in the UK outperformed boys in Maths and English GCSEs with 5.2% of girls obtaining the top grade while 3.8% of boys achieved the same score1. Why is it then, that so many leaders in business, science, politics and technology are men?
Furthermore, in the same year, 80% of Year 5 girls (11 years of age) and 80% of boys in the UK achieved the required grades in their math SATS (national standardized test). However at GCSE (16 years of age) 4.2% of boys and only 3% of girls achieved top scores2. This has been the trend over a number of years. Why do 11 year old girls maths scores equal those of boys in maths, but 16 year old girls not?
It would be naïve to put this change down to a single variable, such as peer pressure or gender stereotyping but it would be neglectful to ignore the impact that gender expectations have on your child. A study as recent as 2015 has shown that gender stereotype has a significant effect on a child’s self-concept and academic success3. Are unwittingly creating a negative self-concept resulting in academic underachievement in you child?
Even more recently, in 2017, German based research found that girls studying STEM subjects (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) had negative self-concepts4. In addition to this there were negative family related influences (where parents offer positive support to their child, but it is translated negatively by the child as “I need help”) regarding their STEM choice of study.
So how do we encourage our children, boys and girls, to reach their potential in the natural field of strength?
✅ Avoid saying things like “you look sweet” to girls and “you look strong” to boys. This may make children think that other characteristics are less important.
✅ Use gender neutral language, for example, say “children” instead of “boys and girls”.
✅ Challenge any stereotypical comments they might make.
✅ Be supportive and encouraging of their ideas and plans for a career.
✅ Don’t offer help too quickly with homework – let children try and work it out for themselves. Offering help may back fire and lead them to think “I can only do this with help”.
✅ Give praise for what your child does and not for what they are. To have a talent is no great accomplishment as nothing was done to earn it – it is what they do with that talent that counts.