Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Gender Stereotypes and The Ambition Gap

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - Sheryl Sandberg, ...

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In this insightful article, Samantha Ettus draws a connection between the gender stereotypes that are constantly presented to girls in children’s media and product marketing and the ambition gap that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discusses in this video from the World Economic Forum.

Sandberg Sees Global `Ambition Gap’ for Women – Video – Bloomberg.

Sandberg talks about the ways that girls are taught by our culture to have different expectations of themselves. When they are being bombarded by products that promote “hanging out” and “getting ready for parties” such as what you see in this new LEGO Friends commercial, this is what our girls believe is important. We see products for girls that say things like “I’m too pretty to do math” and the ubiquitous “sassy” and “flirty” splashed across even infant clothing. Even girls who want to achieve and succeed in areas beyond their appearance feel the pressure of going against this stereotype, and it affects their performance academically. For more on this phenomenon, which is called, Stereotype Threat, see this post.

Lego Friends commercial

What do we think is going to happen when girls are constantly being told that their goal in life, their value, lies primarily in how they look? Today I went to an “Invention Convention” held in my 7-year-old daughter’s 2nd grade classroom. Each child either chose an inventor to talk about or made their own invention. Both boys and girls were excited to be learning, to be challenged, to think about being inventors who could create something wonderful for the world. But these are the same girls who I heard not long ago talking about how eating ice cream makes you fat. 7-year-old children were worried about eating ice cream! Now, if some of them had been overweight already, I might have thought perhaps they had heard this from their doctor and were on an eating plan for better health. But no, these were all healthy young girls. Where are they getting these messages? Likely these messages are coming from home, peers and media. And this appearance monitoring affects them, and becomes even stronger and more distracting as they get older. Middle school girls lose interest in STEM areas in droves and begin focusing more on their appearance and romantic relationships.

We are sending our daughters ridiculously mixed messages. We tell them, “you can be anything!”  but darn it you better be beautiful and thin while doing that. We have commentators on news channels discussing the appearance of our female politicians. Hillary Clinton gets criticized for being “too masculine” and “haggard” while other female politicians or political nominees get asked if they’ve had plastic surgery. Really? What about asking about where they stand on political issues? What does this say to young girls? That no matter how smart they are, no matter how creative, no matter how kind, what really matters at the end of the day is how they look.

We must be about more than this! As adults, we must be teaching ALL children that they are more than their physical appearance. Their worth comes from their internal qualities that can be developed like their talents, their intelligence, their kindness and character. Adults must start pushing back on these ridiculous stereotyped ideas that teach our girls to value their appearance above anything. We can do this in some specific ways:

  • Start at home by sending a different message. Keep fat and appearance talk at a minimum. Don’t criticize your own body, your child’s body or other people’s bodies. Instead, talk about health and fun when you talk about moving your body and eating healthy foods. Let the kids in your life hear you promoting the idea that people are valuable for who they are on the inside. Openly express your admiration for their talents and good qualities.
  • Talk openly about the stereotypes and appearance related messages that the kids in your life are getting. Ask them, “What do you think about that?” Engage in media with your child, and when appearance related messages come up, point them out and discuss them.
  • Push companies to provide healthier messages. Refuse to spend your money on products that promote narrow, gendered ideas of value. To get change from industry, consumers must put our money where our mouth is.

There are incredibly powerful women like Sandberg pushing this issue, and there are child experts and activists asking parents and companies to think more closely about the  messages that we are sending girls about their value. We must stand up and be willing to push this issue or there will continue to be an ambition gap. Children learn in context, and if they are being told that female value lies in appearance, that is what they will learn. Let’s stand up and teach them a different lesson, the lesson that female value is so much more than how they look, that it is about who they are.

4 comments on “Gender Stereotypes and The Ambition Gap

  1. changetakestime
    March 4, 2012

    I couldn’t agree more! I would add that if you have a cable TV deal where you pick your channels, put your money where your mouth is (like you said) and don’t buy anything with Entertainment Tonight, or any of the hyper-masculine (women-objectifying), or hyper-feminine (stereotyping) shows. And steer clear of tabloid magazines, of course!

  2. Mary Es Townsend
    February 5, 2012

    I grew up in a world where my father’s aspiration for me was to be an astronaut (seriously). When I came home from school after changing schools at age 10 and they said they were going to put me in the advanced math class, he sat down to try and teach me solving two simultaneous equations with two unknowns. In my graduating class 8 of the top 10 were women and nearly all of them had taken AP Math as well as AP English. My first few years in the work world, I was the only woman on the shift or on the team, but within 10 years women were getting to be common in my career field, namely “high tech”. I can’t say that I’ve ever suffered from a gender pay gap or a limitation in my career because I was a woman. Beyond that my mother retired with a higher salary than my father retired with. I realize that there is a good portion of the world that does have these “glasses” on, but I guess I self-select to people and experiences where my intelligence and capability are rewarded and encouraged. It is possible to live this way.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      February 5, 2012

      What an inspiring story you have! My hope is for more girls to be able to tell this story in the future.

  3. Pingback: Shaping Youth » Lego Friends: Please Build on Possibility, Brain Plasticity

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