Raising Children to Ignore Gender Stereotypes

27/06/2016 12:53

Girls today may be the first generation able to end the hugely uneven mix of boys and girls going into STEM-related careers. All sorts of factors are now in place to allow girls to follow the passions that suit them, not just those that fit with gender stereotypes. However, to really achieve this, we need adults (parents in particular) to avoid sending out the message that some activities and careers are 'not for girls' or 'not for boys'.

2016-06-23-1466698327-4732149-2023525113_9021efee45_m.jpgIn a survey by E.ON of 2,000 eight to 15 year-olds, overall maths was the favourite subject with computing/ICT and science also in the top five. While there were more boys than girls choosing maths as their favourite, 34 per cent of girls rated it as theirs.

However, according to research by WISE, the proportions of girls studying STEM subjects drops off at A-Level and only 14.4 per cent of those working in occupations classed as STEM (including health occupations) were women in 2015. The numbers are slowly rising but what is it that turns girls away from Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?

Of course there are (on average) differences between girls and boys, there are countless research studies to back that up, and of course a STEM related career is not for everyone (whether they are a boy or girl).

However, research by Accenture showed that half of 12 year-old girls perceive STEM subjects to be more suited to boys and the biggest influencers on making decisions on subjects, the girls stated, came from parents and teachers. This suggests that what parents are saying is turning some very capable and previously interested girls away from STEM subjects.

The Digital Economy has seen huge growth over the last few years with the UK leading the way. So there are big career opportunities out there for those who've studied STEM subjects - do we really want to steer girls away from this incredible opportunity?

Does this mean parents should be racing out to enrol their sons into ballet and their daughters into football? Well of course, if the child is keen then please do, however what we are really suggesting is that parents ensure every child gets an opportunity to progress in STEM without being influenced away from it.

A child should not be required to go against their parents' and peers' opinions and 'dare to be different' to succeed in STEM. I am a qualified female engineer, and in my day you really did have to choose to be different to make that work. On my first work experience placement at an engineering firm, when I explained that I was about to start studying an engineering degree said "But you're a girl". Whilst I prided myself on breaking the mould, that fitted with my character, most children, particularly teenagers, want to fit in, not stand out.

The wonderful thing about the modern technological world is that it is increasingly feasible to enjoy STEM without being a 'geek' or having to choose to be different. Technology is a popular part of children's lives and there is a growing range of toys and apps that are putting the emphasis on creativity within technology. Creativity is traditionally a subject very open to girls, which in turn means STEM is becoming more female-friendly to the wider world, a fact reinforced by the data from WISE showing that the number of girls taking computing more than doubled between 2014 and 2015.

There are many people dedicating themselves to ensuring girls have every opportunity to pursue STEM, but this can be so quickly undermined by comments from parents or other trusted adults like: "Science is much more of a boys subject" or "Don't worry, I never really liked maths, I'd leave that one to your brother".

I suggest that you give your children a wide range of play opportunities throughout their childhood aiming to cross the gender stereotype boundaries. Let your girls have a chance to play with LEGO, try the maths board game, kick a football, download a programming app etc and equally, let your boys play with dolls, enjoy arts and crafts and explore their caring side. Then sit back and watch. If there is a glimmer of interest, skill or enthusiasm, nurture it. Don't force them down any road they hate but equally if STEM is not for them, at least help them understand that it's open to them and likely to be enjoyed by some of their female friends.

You may be surprised. STEM is not to be feared - the opportunities are endless, don't let your daughter miss her chance to shine in these exciting careers.

Lucy is a freelance researcher and consultant specialising in children's apps, tech toys and user experience. She supports companies in developing products, involving children in the development process through play testing wherever possible. She also continues to work as an Associate for Fundamentally Children (where she was formerly a Director).