Several years ago, I was sitting with my niece, who was 9 at the time. I was doing some research on self-esteem in girls, and she was reading over my shoulder. She was surprised by what she was reading, emphatically protesting that the decrease in confidence did not make sense and that she did not recognize herself in those words. She was visibly surprised this could happen. As we discussed it further, my primary hope was that she would hold on to this confidence and allow it to carry her. In many ways, 5 years later, she has. In many ways, she has not. Time will tell what will continue to change for her in her ability to follow her dreams and goals, things she identified as a young girl, that are impacted by the world around her.
Current research shows us that most children see the world and their abilities similarly until the age of 5, regardless of gender. Something happens in the year between five and six causing girls to believe that they are not smart enough to engage in certain activities. Research being done by Andrei Cimpian and Sarah Jane Leslie point out that often this shift is the result of cultural stereotypes that “promote the idea that being intellectually gifted is a male quality.”
When girls begin to think, however subtly, that they “can’t” do something, very often, they “won’t.” This thinking creates the “dream gap:” the gap that comes between girls and their dreams. If they hear that something is for boys, they internalize that, creating a narrative of not being as good or capable as their male counterparts. The narrative starts early, and far too often, that girls are “less than.” As adults in the lives of girls, it’s time we question what we are doing, even unintentionally, to limit girls. What is the environment doing to promote the dream gap and how can we change it?
Watch Your Words
Words are powerful. How we speak to girls is so important. Even when we think we are saying the “right” things, we may be inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. Rather than saying things like: “Girls can be astronauts, too;” say “Girls can be astronauts.” The former may cause them to feel like an afterthought. The latter encourages the commitment.
We all feel validated when we have models to follow. Show your daughter women who are leaders, women in power, women who are scientists. Find examples of who they want to be and show them that it is possible.
Focus on the Effort
Research shows us again and again that focusing on the effort rather than the outcome increases the likelihood of commitment and determination. If a girl can feel confident that she worked hard and put in effort, she will continue to try to do more. Reinforcing that shows her that hard work can help her achieve her goals. It’s not just about innate ability.
Without failure, nothing is learned. More and more often, adults try to protect children from failing, worried about how the disappointment will impact them. This can actually cause more harm than good. When failure happens, talk about what happened, how your daughter feels, and what she can do next time. Out of failure, comes growth.
Be a Cheerleader
Be in your daughter’s corner, encouraging her to try whatever she wants, attempt whatever she thinks she can do and cheering her on as she does so. The more encouraged she is to try new things and to embrace them, the more likely she will hold onto her dreams.
It is possible to keep the dream gap at bay. My niece, now 14, through encouragement and support, continues to feel as though she can be unabashedly herself, following her interests as she chooses. Although I do see a difference in her self-talk overall, she continues to be a confident young woman, who embraces her differences and enjoys them. The adults in her life, especially her parents, have continuously encouraged her to be who she is and to strive to be who she wants to be. Imagine what would happen if this could be the same for all girls?
I have partnered with Barbie on creating content to support The Dream Gap Project and I am being compensated for this post.