Someday you want your daughter, niece, goddaughter and best friend’s little girl to grow up and have the option of being a fire-woman, a writer, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing, a sergeant, a celebrity chef, the president … or whatever else her little heart desires.
And you want her to get paid the exact same amount for the same work that her male colleagues do.
While equal pay has been in the news a lot lately, research hasn’t quite pinpointed why women don’t make as much as men in the workplace. Some say it’s because we don’t negotiate enough. Some say it’s because when we do negotiate, we get turned down or are deemed too aggressive. Others think it’s because we have a tendency to get saddled with all the family responsibilities. Maybe all of these are true.
But maybe, just maybe, it also has something to do with ideas that have been subtly ingrained in us since we were very young.
Proof That What Parents Say (and Do) Matters
In fact, a new study shows just how easy it is to persuade kids into believing they aren’t good at something. In a nutshell, the study sought to prove that kids easily adopt beliefs they hear about their gender, which in turn can affect their real-life performance. For example, telling a boy he’s bound to be good at math because he’s a boy could encourage him to give up trying, while telling a girl that girls aren’t good at math could actually make her believe that she is, in fact, bad at math, and cause her to be worse at math because of it.
As predicted, the two experiments in the study showed that the performance of 4- to 7-year-olds was impaired when they were told that another group (e.g., “boys are good at this game”) was successful at the same task.
When dealing with gender and what’s “right” and “wrong” when it comes to raising girls to their full potential, it seems there’s a lot to learn …
A Steep Learning Curve
Children start to understand gender roles starting at 30 months, and start developing social prejudices–including gender-based prejudices–starting in preschool. The us-versus-them mentality reaches its apex between 5 and 7 years of age before slowly waning.
As parents, we’ve never told our daughters that there are “girl-specific” jobs, or that the key to happiness and self-worth is marriage. (Of course, we can’t help the messages they might see when we’re not around.) But there are other ways in which our daughters, and the other little girls in our lives, could be learning life lessons from us that will lead them to shy away from “challenging” subjects like trigonometry and engineering, take the first low salary offered to them out of college or get burned out before age 30.
We asked Anea Bogue, M.A., an acclaimed self-esteem expert, educator, certified life coach and creator of REALgirl® empowerment workshops, to share some of the ways you might be holding your daughter back from her full potential without even knowing it.
1. You teach her to be polite and quiet.
There’s a fine line between being well-behaved and being a doormat, and it seems that all too often girls are pushed into territory bordering on the latter.
“The ‘girls are sugar and spice and everything nice’ adage that [society is] programmed with leads us to raise girls who are what I call ‘pleasers,’” says Bogue. “We teach our girls in a variety of ways that being nice, avoiding conflict, not upsetting others and not challenging the status quo are all part of being a likeable, desirable, successful girl–and one day woman.”
What this could mean for her future: It’s easy to see how this mindset could lead to the kind of behavior where women don’t negotiate for higher salaries, because they don’t want to offend a potential employer, or they don’t speak up in class, and eventually meetings, for risk of being seen as not nice.
How you can avoid this: While we all want well-behaved children, don’t forget to teach your daughter that it’s okay to debate, disagree and negotiate–respectfully, of course–and especially with her peers. Encourage her to speak up in class, from preschool to college, and state her opinion, and then be ready and willing to defend it.
2. You buy her gender-specific toys.
By only handing her pink playthings for the first three years of her life, your child may decide pink is her favorite color because “that’s what girls like.” In fact, researchers think that parents and other social factors lead children to prefer gender-specific toys, not innate genetic predispositions.
What this could mean for her future: This is important because a 2009 study found that 31% of “girl” toys are all about appearance, involving plastic makeup and dresses. Meanwhile, toys targeted to boys encourage invention, exploration, competition, mobility, problem solving–all skills associated with highly desirable employees and leaders.
How you can avoid this: Try to avoid walking exclusively down the Barbie and doll aisles at stores, and instead provide your child with games and toys that encourage scientific discovery, competition, exploration and problem solving. We like these picks.
3. You tell her she’s pretty … to the exclusion of everything else.
Yes, she’s an adorable pumpkin who looks so cute in curly pig tails that you want to squeal. But she’s also really good at writing poetry, is an architectural whiz at constructing complex pillow forts and loves singing along to The Beatles and strumming her air guitar.
What this could mean for her future: “We live in a very appearance-conscious society, and unless you can commit to completely cutting your daughter off of all forms of media and interactions at school, she is going to have a sense that her appearance counts,” says Bogue. “However, by making a concerted effort to reward, acknowledge and show a genuine appreciation for her non-appearance based achievements (academic, sport, musical, etc.), we will start to send clear messages that her value does not begin and end with the way she looks.”
How you can avoid this: Bogue advises you to “challenge yourself to match every compliment you give about your daughter’s appearance with at least two compliments about something non-appearance based.”
4. You indoctrinate her into the princess cult.
Most real-life princesses are actually quite accomplished. They can speak several languages, have excellent diplomacy skills and we know at least one who graduated from an esteemed British university. But your little girl doesn’t know that. All she knows is that the key to living happily ever after is being able to sing well enough to attract a prince to rescue her from her troubles.
What this could mean for her future: “Princess culture encourages girls to be damsels in distress whose role it is to look good and wait for a handsome prince to swoop in, ‘save her’ and bring value to her self and her path,” says Bogue. “Unless we are going to start encouraging ‘warrior princess’ mentalities and behaviors (active, heroic in her own right, in charge of her own destiny), we are going to keep our girls stuck with the feeling that they are not really relevant and valuable in and of themselves, but only in their attachment to men.”
How you can avoid this: It’s an almost impossible task to shield your daughter from princess culture altogether, and with the right messaging, there’s really no reason to. What you can do is redefine for her what a being a princess means. Take her to see “Brave” this summer, a movie about a princess who bucks expectations to save her kingdom herself–no man required. Or revisit “Tangled,” a story about a princess who doesn’t want or need the help of a prince, and couldn’t care less when her pretty blond hair gets cut off. If your daughter has already fallen in love with traditional princess stories, be sure to point out all the fabulous things the heroine is doing all on her own (Look how Belle loves reading. Ariel sure is a fabulous swimmer …)
If you’d like to have a little extra fun with the whole princess thing, take our quiz to find out which Disney Princess is your financial twin.
5. You give Dad all the physical tasks around the house.
It might be easier to let the man of the house open the pickle jar or fix the squeaky door, but we bet you could do these things too if you put your mind to it.
What this could mean for her future: “It’s important for parents to consciously challenge typical gender-specific tasks,” says Bogue. “Especially those that communicate that women are weaker than men, and that they are ‘caretakers’ rather than ‘doers,’ ‘fixers’ or ‘providers.’”
How you can avoid this: Demonstrate for your daughter that you handle important financial tasks–like these that every mom should do–and that you can cut the lawn and open pickle jars (run it under hot water and tap the lid on the counter–works every time). Also avoid handing out chores according to gender. Assign mowing the lawn and taking out the trash to your daughter, while asking your son or husband to do the dishes and vacuum the living room.
6. You only let her spend time with other girls.
While sending your daughter to an all-girls school isn’t the only place where this issue could play out, it’s still worth mentioning that there have been studies pointing both directions on whether single-sex schooling is actually more effective for girls. One study showed that graduates of single-sex schools had higher SAT scores and confidence, and better academic engagement. But another report published last fall upended the status quo, finding that all-girl schools not only don’t graduate more accomplished students, but that single-sex schools breed children more likely to believe in gender stereotypes.
What this could mean for her future: It’s not just about whether your daughter attends an all-girls school or not–the issue extends into her life outside of school as well. Studies actually show that not only do preschool-age children tend to self-segregate by sex, but that segregation leads to the development of different sets of social skills, styles, expectations and preferences–none of which will help her someday break into the board room.
How you can avoid this: If your daughter is surrounded by tons of girlfriends at school, with nary a boy in sight, try encouraging friendships with boys outside of school, with neighbors or kids of your own friends. For young children, especially, it’s important to arrange play dates with boys as well as girls, invite boys to your child’s birthday parties and other outings and unleash her on the neighborhood basketball court or a co-ed sports team. She’ll learn that she can do everything boys can do … and more.
7. You criticize your own body, and/or other women’s bodies.
Eating healthy is a must for every mom and her daughter (which is why we have healthy recipes for you!), but you don’t want to cross the line into body criticism.
What this could mean for her future: By talking in front of your daughter about your diet, how you need to lose a few pounds or criticizing other women’s clothing choices because of their body shape, you communicate that a woman’s body needs to look a certain way in order for her to be considered likable and successful.
How you can avoid this: “It is really critical that we embody the behaviors and attitudes about ourselves that we want our daughters to feel about themselves,” says Bogue. Demonstrate what healthy eating looks like: balanced meals chosen for their nutrition and energy needs. Avoid behaviors like buying low-fat, processed foods and skipping meals, which are unhealthy and ultimately unsuccessful ways to lose weight at the expense of your health.