Today is International Day of the Girl Child – a day to raise awareness of the rights of girls and importantly, to highlight the challenges girls face around the world.
In so many ways there has never been a better time to be a girl. Since the UN declared October 11 to be International Day of the Girl Child in 2011, more girls are getting the start they deserve in life with better access to basic rights like education and healthcare.
Slowly people around the world are recognising the incredible potential that girls have as the inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow.
But there’s still a long way to go –both around the world and right here at home – as new research by Girlguiding has shown. This year’s Girls’ Attitudes’ Survey – the largest survey of girls’ and young women’s views in the UK, found that more than half of girls age 7-21 change how they behave because of the pressure they feel to conform to gender stereotypes.
More than half of girls said gender stereotypes affected their ability to say what they think, how they behave around their peers, what they wear and even what sport and exercise they do.
These statistics are disheartening, but from my own experience I can say they’re not all that surprising, as someone with passion for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) who hopes to study and pursue a career in engineering.
However, the response I’ve had from my peers and even some adults hasn’t always been encouraging and I’ve often found myself subjected to gender stereotypes.
“That’s a boys’ subject” and “engineering isn’t for girls” are just some of the comments I’ve received – leaving me to feel out of place, or unsure of my ability to achieve in class. When I spoke to my friends I discovered I wasn’t alone and lots of girls our age were facing similar pressures. So I decided I wanted to do something about it.
That’s when I got involved in Action for Change, a joint project by Girlguiding & Girlguiding Scotland, that gives girls the skills and support to take action and campaign for change on an issue they’re passionate about. I started by finding out what girls and young women think about STEM subjects, how many of them have the opportunity to study these in school and what challenges they face.
I wasn’t sure how far my survey would go but I was delighted when I got responses from 200 girls sharing their stories and experiences.
While it was encouraging to see so many girls say that they enjoyed STEM subjects, or would like an opportunity to study them, many of their experiences echoed my own, with girls feeling like STEM subjects were somehow off-limits or just for boys.
This has meant I feel even more motivated to share my findings with educators, MSPs and others who have the power to make a difference.
I’m proud that as a member of Girlguiding Scotland I’ve had the opportunity to stand up to gender stereotypes and empower other girls to do the same.
But there’s a long way to go until every girl feels empowered to do the same. Tackling gender stereotypes is a long process – especially when they are present in so many areas of everyday life.
Whether it’s the adverts we see on TV, the way we speak about female business and political leaders, or the lessons we learn in school – it can sometimes feel like we’re bombarded with messages about what women should and shouldn’t do from all sides.
The good news is there are steps we can take right now to make a real difference. For a start, girls and young women deserve to see diverse, strong female role models blazing new trails in all walks of life being celebrated in the media and discussed in our classrooms.
We need spaces – both at school and outside the classroom – where girls have the opportunity to take on new experiences and develop new skills in areas that may once have been seen as ‘for the boys’.
Finally, we have to change the way we view and talk about girls and women. This might sound like the simplest step of all but it’s probably the hardest to take.
Whether it’s overly sexualised portrayals of women in the media or online, right down to the toys and clothes we deem to be ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ – we need to make sure the message we’re sending out loud and clear is that every girl should feel safe and confident to be her true self. If we do, the next generation will have even more reasons to celebrate on International Day of the Girl.
Catherine Young is a member of Girlguiding Scotland.