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The Fun of Empowering Girls

For over 20 years, I worked in public broadcasting making shows for young people. We made television and digital content and even hosted events in communities across the country. As a public broadcaster, I was keenly aware of what we needed to work hard on, including empowering children…especially girls. We knew from research that if girls saw positive role models on screen, it could have an incredible impact. But no matter how hard we worked, we couldn’t control what happened after they saw a program. We knew that the impact would be higher if the ideas in the shows were talked about at home. And even higher if a parent watched with them.

As a parent, I want great role models too. Like most parents,  I feel a lot of pressure to try to make all the right choices. It can be a lot. So, I think it’s time to make a switch and take the pressure off.

I say let’s have fun with empowering the girls (and boys!) in our lives. Instead of trying to find all the right everything to introduce them to, let’s make it an adventure together.

With your own kids, try to think outside of the box to find awesome role models on your screen, and in your own neighbourhood or town. Make it a quest. A Mission. Make a chart. Or just do it for fun. Find what works with your family dynamic but make the goal finding awesome women near where you live. Here are some suggestions:

1/ Make it a challenge to see who can find the coolest girl character in a tv show. And then watch it together.

2/ Go to the library and see if any women authors are speaking. Or reading from their picture or chapter books.

3/ Check out cool women running for office where you live and go and hear them speak. Even if your kids are too young to understand the issues, all the clapping and sign waiving will make it fun. And they get to see women being supported by other women and men.

4/ In your play- whether it’s with stuffed animals, dolls or action characters- make the role playing about inventing or leading (hey let’s find a way to invent a colour changing t-shirt or create a cardboard starship to fly us to the stars!). Remember that young kids imaginations are way better than ours as adults, so let them run with it.

5/ Celebrate the women in your extended family who have interesting jobs- in science, architecture, a small startup- and have them tell your kids about it

6/ Go old school. Kids still love to play board games. Print off pictures of powerful women- from politicians to pilots- that you can glue to cardboard and use as pieces in any of your favourite family games instead of the regular pieces.

And remember moms, research shows that this isn’t just about our kids. A study in the journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that working women who viewed images of powerful women succeeded in stressful leadership tasks. So have fun with it!

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

Dreams of a Six Year Old Girl

Have you ever spoken to a six year old girl? Seemingly the epitome of confidence,the world is her oyster, and she believes she can be anything:

  • An astronaut;

  • A ballet dancer;

  • The President;

  • All at the SAME TIME.

Moreover, young girls frequently do better than boys in elementary school, where their abilities to sit still and follow rules often makes their teachers give them plenty of gold stars.

The traditional thinking is that young girls’ confidence doesn’t drop until they hit puberty. But something else is happening during the ages of five to seven, as children develop cognitively, becoming aware that others are evaluating their behavior.

As a well designed experiment found, at five years of age, girls say that both genders are smart, but by six years old, they classify boys as belonging to the “really really smart” category at a higher rate. Thus, what children see and hear during this developmental stage shapes thinking in ways that adults may not always see or recognize.

In fact, even at younger ages, children quickly absorb the stereotypes we communicate about activities and skills associated with each gender. Children learn in the context of their social and cultural milieu and the messages they are given (from parents, media, teachers and other socialization agents) promote gender identities, sometimes with stereotypes attached to them.

The good news is that in the US, things may be starting to change.  One study found that when asked to draw a scientist, kids in the United States increasingly draw women. Back in the sixties and seventies, when asked the same question, less than one percent of children drew a female scientist. Today the average is twenty eight percent. But still, as kids get older, they begin to draw more men in this role. At five or six girls draw the same number of men and women, but by seven and eight they begin to draw more men.

So there is still plenty of work to do. Luckily research has helped us become more aware of these biases. Moreover, companies who create media and product for kids are helping change entrenched patterns. Many companies are focusing on creating strong female characters, and their audience is responding – even boys!  

What can you do to help encourage your child to dream big and help your girl recognize that boys and girls are equally “really really smart?  One answer: Play! Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models. And young kids like to play with the objects that will teach them the most.

Here are a few ways caregivers can support their children so they start to internalize gender equality:

  1. Choose media that highlight strong female role models.

Why? Because research shows that representation shapes the way we think.

  1. Highlight real life female role models, including yourself if you are a woman.

Why? Because connecting to the real world helps make children understand what’s truly possible. And young girls focus on what their female caregiver is doing.

  1. Encourage boys to diversify their play patterns. Support their play with dolls, and help them recognize that women are equally brilliant to men.

Why? Because until we recognize that boys can enjoy more “feminine” pursuits, masculine stereotypes of strength and brilliance will persist and undermine progress for women.

Yalda Uhls, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

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