© Blog First Steps, IDB´s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Clara Alemann

gender expectations

In the United States, half of girls are dissatisfied with their bodies, 42% of girls in first through third grade wish they were thinner, and 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Worse yet, 10 out of 100 girls have an eating disorder, with negative consequences on the good nutrition necessary to think and learn. What do these statistics say about society’s gender expectations?

From an early age, parents, teachers and the media teach girls that their value as a person is primarily determined by their reproductive role and their gentleness, beauty, and thinness rather than their intelligence, assertiveness, creativity, capacity for critical thinking, or leadership ability. A recent post here on the blog discussed the alarming gender bias seen in parents’ concerns about their children. These parental and social expectations affect the development of key aspects of personality, behavior and health. Likewise, although in a different way, they limit the development of children’s potential in terms of their life experiences and opportunities. In this post, I’ll talk about how these expectations affect girls.

By age 6, a girl already understands that her physical appearance is a vital aspect of her identity and that her value to those in the world around her is, in part, based on her body. Thanks to constant media bombardment, girls are subjected to images, clothes and marketing that communicate disrespect for and objectification of women, all of which impacts the development of young women’s self-esteem, their belief in their ability to achieve their life goals, and their relationship with their body.

Self-esteem and self-efficacy (the measure of the belief in one’s own ability to reach goals) are associated with the ability to have aspirations, set goals that we consider important, and act accordingly, thus transforming available resources and opportunities into desirable results. Gender expectations also affect girls’ predisposition to learn skills that would facilitate their future entrance into the workforce. Research evidence from the US shows that veiled bias against women exists in academia, based on the belief that women are less competent than men, even when they have the same accomplishments and skills. For women pursuing a career in the sciences, various studies identify a persistent devaluing of their contributions and a lack of motivation to continue along that career path as some of the main barriers to success, which, together with the constant difficulties they face, ultimately result in the abandonment of their careers in most cases.

Considering the circumstances, how can we create social, family, and learning environments that strengthen the confidence of each and every child and that place value in who they are rather than in their physical beauty, strength, or ability to comply with rigid social mandates? How can we encourage creativity, innovation, and the development of talent in children without stifling their potential?

I think it’s important to raise awareness among educators and parents about the role that gender plays in the development of children, and that believing that we’re offering equal opportunities for all is just not enough to balance the inequities that exist in our society. Working proactively for our culture to be inclusive and to allow children—regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity—to be able to develop their potential should be one of the main dimensions of quality sought by early childhood development programs. Here are some practices that parents and educators can use to boost children’s confidence:

  • Above all else, value a girl for who she is (her ideas, decisions, courage to speak her mind, approach to problem-solving) and not for how she looks or how much she weighs.
  • Encourage children to pursue their passions. These pursuits will strengthen their self-esteem and help them develop inner traits that will lessen the focus on appearance.
  • Promote constructive decision-making about significant aspects of their lives as well as problem-solving in their own way, rather than making decisions for them.
  • Encourage girls to take risks (within reason) and try activities outside their comfort zone.
  • Allow girls to disagree with adults so that they learn to defend their convictions rather than cast them aside to maintain a relationship or a job, and to be heard rather than be silenced (even if they’re told it isn’t sexy) by their future peers, bosses and boyfriends.
  • Limit their exposure to mass media, thereby preserving a space for them to develop their own ideas, creativity and imagination based on direct experiences.

At educational institutions (see also the Developing Gender-Responsive Learning Environments toolkit):

  • Teach girls to focus on their aspirations and goals, choosing relationships and activities that make them happy and healthy.
  • Select teaching materials that reflect the interests and life experiences of girls and boys rather than those that portray girls and women in subservient roles. Try to represent the diversity of men and women in leadership, professional, and caregiving roles where they are shown as strong, imaginative, courageous, loving, in need of help, etc.
  • Expose children equally to a range of skills and knowledge that will prepare them for adult life.
  • Consider girls’ often low level of self-esteem and give them enough time to think about and answer a question before moving on to the next student.
  • Encourage girls to pick unconventional activities and to try activities outside their comfort zone.
  • Ensure that both boys and girls participate—encouraging those who are reluctant or shy—by expressing their ideas, assuming responsibilities within and outside the classroom, making decisions, etc.
  • Get children involved in cultural, sporting and artistic activities that challenge gender stereotypes.
  • Have a zero-tolerance policy with clear punitive measures for gender-based teasing and harassment both inside and outside the classroom.

Share this post with teachers and parents through Twitter and Facebook. Using these practices, I hope that we all move toward communities in which children are free to develop their ability to think critically about the world around them, pursue goals that are meaningful to them, and make decisions that will lead in that direction.

Clara Alemann is a consultant in the Division for Gender and Diversity. She is an expert in design and management of policy and social development with a genre perspective. Her work focuses on the analysis of the determinants of poverty and the integration of gender and diversity in the design and implementation of social protection studies and operations, focusing on the areas of sexual and reproductive health, conditional cash transfer programs, early childhood development, violence against women, and youth at risk. 

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