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Ages & Stages

Helping Girls Overcome the Education Gender Gap

Young girls frequently experience a crisis of confidence beginning in early adolescence, when self-esteem is inextricably bound to their changing physical appearance and body image. A survey of seven thousand teenage girls and boys in grades five through twelve found that girls’ insecurity tends to intensify as they get older. According to the poll, from the Commonwealth Fund, only two in five high-school girls described themselves as highly self-confident, while one in four claimed they either disliked or hated themselves.

Boys’ egos, too, take a bruising during the teen years. But a girl’s rickety self-esteem is more likely to contribute to an overall decline in scholastic performance beginning with junior high school. A groundbreaking poll of students ages nine to fifteen contended that both our educational system and our culture unintentionally discourage girls from developing interests in science, math and other academic pursuits. The survey was commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

A second AAUW report, made public the following year, expanded on the original findings. “How Schools Shortchange Girls” charged that from kindergarten through grade twelve, girls’ educations are inferior to those of boys. The researchers revealed that girls are called on less in class, ask fewer questions, spend less hands-on time in computer labs and science labs, and generally are accorded less attention from teachers. Furthermore, school curricula often underplay women’s roles throughout history or promote female stereotypes, while gender bias plagues many standardized tests.

What You Can Do

Teach Your Daughter Not To Let Gender Dictate Her Interests and Aspirations

Why are girls only half as likely as boys to use a computer? Certainly not because they’re less capable. The major reason for the discrepancy is that girls aren’t encouraged to master technology to the same extent that boys are. Computer science is still viewed predominantly as a male calling, just as the nursing profession remains largely the domain of females. Although gender gaps have narrowed in medicine, law, and business, only 6 percent of women are in careers that would be considered nontraditional.

To broaden your daughter’s opportunities in life, nurture interests that run counter to male-female stereotypes. A girl should be complimented on more than looks; her intellect and athletic prowess deserve no less praise than you would shower on a boy. Below are other ways to create a household free of gender bias:

  • Mom, you go cheer on Brother at his next hockey game; Dad, you attend Sis’s concert with the middle-school band.
  • See to it that sons and daughters have equal access to computers and other forms of technology.
  • Put a stop to brothers and sisters hurling insults based on gender. Example: “You want to borrow my free weights? But you’re a girl! You couldn’t bench-press twenty pounds!”
  • Model equality in your marriage. For instance, on weekends let Dad handle the cooking and cleaning in between his other responsibilities, while Mom gets to do the mowing and other outdoor work. The point is to show children that neither sex has to be confined to rigid husband-wife roles. You’re also providing them with a wonderful example of a true partnership.
  • Similarly, if you have a teenage son and daughter, assign household chores equitably, not according to sex. There’s no reason that he can’t babysit younger siblings now and then, and she is no less capable of taking out the garbage.

Support Your Daughter’s Independence and Assertiveness

Long-held sexual stereotypes die hard, evidently, for women still must contend now and then with the lingering perception that assertiveness, independence and intelligence are somehow incompatible with being feminine. In the worlds of junior high and high school, a teenager who is unsure of herself may take this to heart in an effort to fit in among her peers. It can be puzzling to parents and teachers when a girl’s competitiveness and self-assurance are replaced by passivity and a reluctance to voice opinions.

You can help your daughter withstand the pressure to suppress her natural intelligence by providing her with opportunities to make decisions, encouraging her to speak her mind, and teaching her how to do things for herself, such as changing the tires on the car.

Counter The Mixed Messages That Girls Receive About Women’s Worth In Society

The women’s liberation movement that took root in the 1970s raised women’s expectations of themselves. Yet TV, films and magazines continue to inundate girls (and boys) with narrow images of women—the majority unnaturally shapely and attractive.

“Girls don’t get to see many role models of intellectual, achievement-oriented women,” observes Dr. William Lord Coleman. Search for positive women role models—say, a biography of the First Lady, or a female astronaut, comedian or business executive. But also point out possible role models she actually knows, like yourself. Discuss incidents of sexism that you’ve faced and how you surmounted them. If you went through a phase as a teenager where you tried not to appear “too smart,” tell her about it.

Finally, encourage both your sons and daughters to pursue their particular interests. Give them opportunities to try a number of different things and try to avoid pitching them on specific activities just because they fit a stereotype or run counter to it.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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