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“How would American girls’ lives be different if parents were half as concerned with their bodies and twice as intrigued by their minds?”

An article published a couple of months ago in The New York Times ends with that rather pointed question. The piece’s title alone was already quite provocative: “Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?” While reading the article, the first thing that came to mind was the image of the Evil Queen from Snow White asking the mirror who was the fairest woman in the land. It turns out I wasn’t so far off the mark; the article talks about the frequency with which American parents turn to the Internet with questions about their children’s intelligence and beauty. Who would have guessed that in the 21st century, Google would be the go-to source for answers to this type of question, when not long ago we were resorting to low-tech mirrors a la Snow White (well, at least in fairy tales)?

The Times article presents some surprising statistics. Using data from search engines such as Google, the author notes that American parents are more likely to ask questions related to the intelligence of their sons rather than their daughters. What’s curious is that this sort of bias can be observed very early on… even the parents of two-year-olds get caught up in it! For example, the parents of young children are two and a half times more likely to google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” But the story doesn’t end there. Google search data reveals that American parents are more likely to wonder about the appearance of their daughters as opposed to that of their sons, as evidenced by queries as to whether their girls are overweight or ugly.

This data suggests that the most traditional gender roles, which have excluded women from intellectual and professional development for generations and relegated them to the spheres of beauty and entertainment, remain strong in American society. These same trends can probably be seen in Latin America and the Caribbean.

We know that gender roles are constructed and embodied early in life. We also know that the family, school and community are important environments where these roles take shape, precisely as the result of the expectations of parents and other adults and the attitudes they pass on to little ones.

A couple of years ago, we published an interesting reflection on this blog about how, from early childhood, gender is a factor that determines girls’ path in life, as it can influence the likelihood that they receive the care and attention they need from their family, their community and the government.  It would not be surprising that a mother and father who are as concerned about their son’s smarts as they are their daughter’s physical charms will devote a proportional amount of effort and resources to these concerns. How do these assigned roles and this inequality of expectations, opportunities and resources play a part in determining children’s aspirations?

Without a doubt, there’s a lot of work to be done on incorporating a gender perspective into policies and programs aimed at children and youth. One concrete example is to develop educational and recreational materials that do not reinforce gender stereotypes but instead allow children to explore all kinds of activities. Of course, along with these materials, there must be a push to change the behavior of families, teachers and caregivers who, like all of us, need to rid themselves of these actions and attitudes that generate the inequities of which we so strongly disapprove.

Share this post on Facebook or Twitter so that other parents can reflect on the gender roles they’re instilling in their sons and daughters at an early age.

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