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We Should Sweat the Small Stuff

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 05/25/2017 | General

The bathtub in our house has been clogged for about a week. So, a couple of days ago, I got out some tools to fix it and started in. My four year old daughter saw me and said, “Let Daddy fix it.” Daddy? Why Daddy? Because it’s a fixing thing? Why not Mommy? Mommy, who is your baseball coach; Mommy, who runs her own tiller on the garden; Mommy, who ensures you have as many tools and trucks as dolls? 

As you can see, I sweat the small stuff - with good reason. A recent study looking at girls’ motivation to participate in STEM found that six-year-old girls already held the stereotype that boys are better at robots and programming than girls. Another study released in January showed that five-year-old girls believe anybody can be “really, really smart,” but by six, the majority held the belief that only boys can be “really, really smart.” By six, when girls were asked to select the picture of the really smart person, they picked a man—yet boys and girls equally agreed that girls get better grades in school. What is going on?

Starting at birth, kids are inundated with gender role stereotypes as soon as they are wrapped up in a pink or blue blanket. By age six, they enter real school (not pre-school) where biases and gender role stereotypes get reinforced and honed. (There’s a lot of research about how well-intentioned teachers’ implicit gender bias impacts the classroom - I once was one of those teachers.) 

These gender role stereotypes play out on the playground, on TV, on the cover of magazines in the grocery line, and even at home. Over time, these biases become ingrained and continuously narrow girls’ perceptions of what they can and cannot do, what goals they set and work towards, and how they see themselves in the world. (Yes, gender role stereotypes affect both girls and boys, but for girls the long-term effects have potential negative economic impacts.) 

And since much of this is little moments adding up to big impact, we all need to sweat the small stuff.  Sweating the small stuff can look different depending on the place and audience. No, it doesn’t have to be some grandiose feminist manifesto - although sometimes that is necessary. It can be subtle, even comical. It can look different when you’re primed and ready for a conversation about “girl colors” than when your arms are full of groceries, you’re tired and can’t find the front door key. The point is, maybe if we all sweat the small stuff, a cultural shift can happen. 

Here’s how I try to help my daughter recognize gender biases:

Be curious.

I ask questions, lots of questions. When my daughter starts a statement with, “only boys can” or “only girls can”, the key is to remain non-judgmental and inquisitive - “What do you think about that?” “Do you agree?” “Has that been your experience?” - and give a counter examples when you can - “Hank loves his baby doll, and he’s a boy.” 

Experience and support.

Confidence comes from trying new things and, for girls, trying things out of the realm of gender role stereotypes is essential. The study about robots and programming showed that girls who were exposed to programming opportunities were less likely to hold the stereotype. As she starts to engage in outside activities, offer a range of choices that include non-traditional gender activities. As she gets older, social support will become even more important. Help her find her group that also likes math, baseball, programming, for example, and will reinforce her choices and encourage her participation. Show your support with your time and words and by providing opportunities when you can.

Expectation, reinforcement, modeling.

Kids listen to what we say and really watch what we do. In what ways are you inadvertently reinforcing gender stereotypes at home? Do you defer to a male family member when it comes to “male” things around the home, or vice versa? How do you divvy up household tasks for siblings? Are some chores expected by daughters instead of sons or less valued than others? As she gets older, does staying clean become more important than having fun? None of us are perfect and we’ve all been shaped by gender roles and stereotypes - awareness of these goes a long way. 

Do your best, and then watch.

Back to my story about the bathtub. When my four year old said, “Let Daddy fix it.” 

I sweat the small stuff and replied, “Girls and boys can fix things—“ 

She cut me off, “I know Mommy but I want you to come play outside with me. Let Daddy fix it later.”

 

Before you know it, there will be much less small stuff to sweat. Then you can move on to the big stuff. 

 

Heather Pressley, PhD

Author

As a teacher and administrator in public, charter and independent schools for 18 years, Heather Pressley now brings her experience in education to Girls on the Run, ensuring programs are relevant, engaging and girl-centered. Along with geeking out over childhood development research, Heather is navigating the world being a Gen Xer among Millennial parents and enjoys spending time in her garden discussing gender roles and race with her four-year-old daughter. 

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