Girls as young as seven in UK boxed in by gender stereotyping

Girlguiding poll finds more than half, aged 7-21, lacking confidence to speak freely, while society reinforces barriers to progress

Girls as young as seven feel they cannot say or do what they want because of gender stereotyping, according to a survey highlighting the impact of expectations of young females.

A poll of nearly 2,000 young people by the UK charity Girlguiding found that 55% of girls aged seven to 21 said they did not feel they could speak freely because of their gender.

A further 57% said this affected what they wore, and nearly one in two said it made an impact on how much they participated at school.

Sophie Wallace, a member of Girlguiding’s advocate panel, said the results were disgraceful, and that girls and young women were “being denied a basic right because of their gender”. She added: “Society needs to understand that gender stereotypes aren’t just harmful but a barrier to progress.”

The research found that gender stereotypes were reinforced by different sources, and arose from teachers, parents, social media, TV and other media.

One girl, quoted in the report, said that a physical education teacher told pupils to do “a girl press-up”. She said: “I stood up and told him that he was being sexist and that he was being offensive.”

Another girl said: “Sometimes when girls want to play sports in school, boys make fun of you. I want to play football but I can’t because I feel uncomfortable and boys stare at you.” The poll also found that 26% of girls aged seven to 21 thought PE was more for boys than for them.

Early learners: but how long before expectations for girls dampen their drive?
Early learners: but how long before expectations for girls dampen their drive? Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

A third respondent said: “My mum told me that I should not be playing video games because that’s a boy thing, and I said that everyone has the right to gaming because it’s a hobby and if I like it then I like it.”

The findings also showed that girls believed certain subjects, such as science and maths, were more suitable for boys. Additionally, 42% of girls aged seven to 10 thought boys were better than girls at “being strong”.

Those surveyed called for more to be done to challenge preconceptions. According to 95% of girls aged 11-21 the advertising industry should make sure adverts show more positive, diverse representations of their sex.

Natasha Devon, an author and campaigner who works in schools throughout the UK said it was disheartening to hear how stereotypes were limiting girls’ options. “We teach girls that pleasing others is the most important virtue and that being well-behaved is contingent upon being quiet and delicate,” she said.

Maria Miller, the Tory MP for Basingstoke, and chair of the Commons women and equalities committee, said the results showed that outdated stereotyping was damaging to confidence and needed to be tackled from an early age.

A little girl in the 1950s gets to clean up with mother. Even in 2017 toys are marketed assuming certain gender preferences.
A little girl in the 1950s gets to clean up with mother. Even in 2017 toys are marketed assuming certain gender preferences. Photograph: Lambert/Getty Images

She said: “The government has to show more urgency. There must be clear guidance for schools that leaves them in no doubt about their responsibilities to keep girls safe and tackle gender stereotypes, as well as [give] support for those experiencing harassment and abuse. We will be keeping a close eye on government action on this issue over the coming months.”

Wallace said the report showed “glimmers of hope” and most girls said they felt confident in their ability to protect themselves online and were unfazed about entering a male-dominated area of work.

Tricia Lowther, from the campaign Let Toys Be Toys, said: “It’s not surprising that so many girls feel strongly affected by gender stereotypes. When we look at the messages children receive from from toys, books, clothes and media, we can see that gender stereotypes are widespread.

“Take toy catalogues for example, even in 2017 the majority of images show us that girls are expected to be interested in dolls and beauty toys, while boys prefer building, fighting and racing. Children learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in life and these repeated messages help form deep-seated beliefs that can be very hard to shake off later.

“To tackle gender equality we need to ensure that childhood is free of stereotypes that have a negative effect on how children feel about their place in the world.”

Case study: Suzie, 19, student, from Scotland

“I thought about doing physics at school but decided not to in the end. I did an arts subject. It was where my interests lay but I do wonder sometimes whether it was a path decided for from me at a younger age – due to stereotypes.

“We need to make sure we don’t put genders on subjects and jobs, and make sure girls see women working in science. Gender stereotypes are insidious and affect us in lots of ways we don’t realise. For example, girls being stopped from saying what they want to. I guess in terms of speaking out in class. I know I would rather not come across as pushy and loud, and that is partly something you learn through school about how girls should behave. That still affects me a bit at university. Sometimes I would hesitate to put my hand up.

“I am studying politics but I am not sure what I want to do after university. People always ask me if I want to be an MP, but one of the reasons I don’t is because of the way female MPs are treated in politics. When you see women like Theresa May and Diane Abbot – put under so much pressure to be amazing at their jobs but also to present and look lady-like. They are under so much more scrutiny then male politicians and it’s not something that is appealing.

“I do my best to challenge gender stereotypes whenever I can with my younger cousins. I challenge them to look outside the box a bit and encourage other women to do the same.”


Sarah Marsh

The GuardianTramp

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